Updated: Nov 26, 2020
This is the third and final part of the macronutrients series. We will discuss all things protein. You might ask: What exactly is protein? What are the good sources of protein? Do I need to only eat meat to get protein? Should I take a protein powder?
Interesting fact: the word ‘protein’ comes from the Greek word ‘proteos’ which means primary or first place.
What is protein and why do we need it?
Everyone needs protein. You don’t need to be gaining muscle to require protein. Protein has many vital roles in the human body and, regardless of your lifestyle, it is needed for general health and wellness.
Proteins are molecules found in food made up of amino acids; these are the building blocks of life! Amino acids have many roles in the body including acting as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. Protein also aids in growth and repair so without adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function optimally.
Interestingly, of the three macronutrients, protein is actually the most satiating and satisfying, keeping us fuelled and full the longest. Since protein is the most satiating nutrient, it also helps to balance blood sugar levels and reduce cravings for sweets.
What are good sources of protein?
There are two different types of protein; animal protein and plant-based protein.
Animal protein sources include:
However, that does not mean that you need to eat animal protein in every meal in order to consume enough protein. In fact, there are many sources of plant-based protein that can easily be incorporated into any meal or snack.
Excellent sources of plant-based protein includes:
Nuts and seeds
How much protein do we actually need?
As we established, protein is essential to our health, but as with most things in nutrition, there is no simple answer when it comes to how much protein we need. Factors depend on age, health, activity level and goals, therefore protein requirements can vary widely from individual to individual.
In the UK, adults are advised to eat 0.75g of protein for each kilogram they weigh, based on the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI). So if you weigh 70kg (11 stone), you should eat about 52.5g of protein a day.
Although there is no perfect answer when it comes to protein intake, as a general rule, it is ideal to consume a source of protein at every meal or snack.
Depending on the individuals’ circumstances and goals, there are some situations where it is advantageous to increase protein intake. Here are some examples where this could be applicable:
1. Athletes or People who Train Hard
Protein has the ability to help build muscle hence, people who are very active and/or trying to build or maintain muscle mass may require more protein.
Different types of exercise requires different amounts of protein intake, strength training protein requirements are often recommended at 1.2-2g per kilogram of body weight per day and endurance training at 1.2-1.4g per kilogram of body weight per day. This is to help optimise recovery from training and maintain optimal body composition and athletic performance.
2. Balances Blood Sugar Levels
Protein does not impact blood sugar levels the same way carbohydrates do, especially refined carbohydrates. High protein diets have been shown to have a stabilising effect on blood sugar levels, and can lead to beneficial changes in a wide range of metabolic, cardiovascular and inflammatory markers. (1),(2)
3. Individuals Trying to Lose Weight
Compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein is the most satiating macronutrient and can help to balance blood sugar levels, keeping us full for longer periods of time. Therefore, not only can consuming additional protein help manage cravings and hunger, but it can help to increase metabolic rates by supporting the growth and maintenance of muscle mass.
4. Older People
Maintaining independence and achieving a high quality of life is crucial for elderly adults. One of the major threats in elderly people is the loss of muscle mass, strength, and bodily functions that progressively occurs with aging (known as sarcopenia).
Therefore, consuming a higher protein diet can help prevent further tissue breakdown and reduce the adverse effects of ageing. Several studies have shown that an intake of 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may be more appropriate. (3),(4)
Do we need protein supplements?
Protein powders like whey, hemp and soy protein powders are marketed to promise people with a solution to lose weight and gain a lean physique. We have established that, protein helps muscle development and recovery after exercise, but some studies suggest that a healthy diet alone can provide the protein needed for muscle recovery.
When looking for a quality protein powder, it is important to read the ingredients, and analyse different sources. Protein powders can come from many sources, however, not all sources are made the same way or work for people the same way. There isn’t one protein powder source that will work for everyone; everyone is different and everyone digests food differently. If you want to use a protein powder, it is vital to be aware of how it makes you feel; does it make you feel bloated and gassy every time you use it?
Protein powder is called a supplement because it is just that: supplements your existing diet. If you struggle to include protein in your diet, a protein powder can be a useful short term, but should not be used as a long-term solution. Always remember, whole foods first!
Protein supplements should be an addition to a healthy diet, not a replacement.
Practical tips to incorporate protein into your diet:
Include a high-protein food at each meal and in your snacks to get what you need to feel satiated.
Consider snacks like nuts, seeds, hard boiled eggs, or hummus as great healthy snacks rich in protein.
Protein is not only in meat. It is vital to also consume plant-based protein mentioned above into your diet.
1) Mary C. Gannon and Frank Q. Nuttall. (2004). Effect of a High-Protein, Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Blood Glucose Control in People With Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes. 53(9): 2375-2382.
2) Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ, Saeed A, Jordan K, Hoover H. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 78(4):734-41.
3) Chernoff R. (2004). Protein and older adults. J Am Coll Nutr. 23(6) :627S-630S.
4) Jamie I. Baum, Il-Young Kim and Robert R. Wolfe. (2016). Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake? Nutrients. 8(6): 359.