Everyone always seems to go on and on about protein. .but what is it? How much should I have? What foods can I get it from?… are all questions I often get asked so I thought I’d give you the 101 on protein and give you a bit of info about where you can get your protein from.
Eating enough protein is important for everyone – whether you are trying to lose weight, just eat more healthily, put on muscle, recover from your workouts or just want to feel fuller after your meals. But it can be a bit confusing – especially if you’re trying to include more plant-based proteins, or are vegetarian/vegan. This article should help clear things up for you and give you a whole range of plant-based protein options to keep you happy and healthy.
So what is protein?
Protein is a critical component of the body and is often called the body’s building block. All the organs, including the skin, are built from proteins and it’s used to both build and repair tissues (like skeletal muscle, bone, hair, fingernails, cartilage, skin and blood). Many hormones are also proteins, as are the enzymes that digest our food. Every system in the body relies on proteins to enable it to work correctly. Like carbohydrates and fat protein does also provide energy, but it can’t be stored by the body (and has so many other important functions) so it’s used as a last resort source of fuel. If our diet contained no protein to use for repairing and building tissues then our bodies would start to breakdown muscle to get the protein it needs. It’s therefore vital to continually replace the protein that the body is using – and this is even more important if you’re physically active. Children, adolescents and pregnant women also require higher levels of protein as they are all producing new tissue.
After eating a meal, any proteins are broken down in to amino acids – the building blocks of proteins. These amino acids are absorbed in the small intestine and then distributed around the body. The cells use what they need to make new proteins, or repair older ones. Anything left over can either be used for energy. Now, although protein in itself can’t be stored, it can be converted to other storable components. If the body is short on carbohydrates and fat then the amino acids can be converted into glucose (and then glycogen), or into fatty acids and stored. So while it’s important to get enough protein, it’s also important not to go overboard – eating excess protein can lead to weight gain just as much as eating excess carbs and fat can.
Some of the amino acids we need can be produced by the body, while we must get others from the diet. The ones we cannot produce and must get from our foods are called the “essential” amino acids. So protein is not just about quantity, it’s also about quality, but I’ll talk more about that later.
How much protein do we need?
As I’ve already said certain people will need more protein than others. The amount you need depends on your age, weight and levels of activity. Children and adolescents who are still developing need proportionately more protein in their diets than adults. People with high activity levels also need more – as protein is essential in building and repairing muscle and other tissues. A good rough estimation of how much you need to consume is to take your weight in kg and multiply it by 0.8. This gives you the number of grams of protein you should consume every day e.g. if you weigh 100kg you should be consuming roughly 80g protein a day. But this is really only a minimum guideline and there’s lots of evidence to suggest we need more than this. If you are physically active or trying to lose weight then the body of evidence now suggests you need quite a bit more.
Protein and weight loss
Protein is incredibly important in weight loss. Weight loss ultimately comes down to one thing – in order to lose weight, we need to take in fewer calories than we burn. How can eating protein help with this? Studies have shown that eating sufficient protein not only boosts your metabolic rate (meaning you burn more calories) but also reduces your appetite (meaning you take fewer calories in). A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated that eating around 25 – 30% of your daily calories as protein boosts metabolism by up to 80 – 100 calories per day. But most importantly, in terms of sustainable weight loss, is the fact that protein actually reduces appetite, because it’s more satiating (filling) than both carbs and fat (studies from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition). In one study women who increased their protein intake until it formed 30% of their daily calorie intake ended up consuming up to 441 fewer calories per day. They also lost weight, and the only change in their routine was increasing the proportion of protein in their diet! That sounds pretty cool to me!
What’s even better is it can also help you avoid gaining weight in the first place. In another study an increase of protein from 15% to 18% of calories (a very small increase) reduced the amount of fat that people regained after weight loss by up to 50%. And of course higher protein intake also helps with muscle building and repair which means increased muscle mass and increased calorie expenditure. So by eating more protein you will find it much easier to stick to whatever weight loss or healthy eating plan you happen to choose to follow.
So overall it looks like a protein intake of around 30% of your daily calories may be about optimal for weight loss. This is roughly 150g per day for someone on a 2000 calorie diet (just multiply you daily calorie intake by 0.075). If you’re not into counting calories then just aim for a quarter of your plate to be protein every time you eat!
Can you have too much protein?
Well yes, obviously, you can have too much of anything! But in general no, it’s hard to consume excessive amounts of protein precisely because of the effect it has on your appetite. There have been numerous reports over the years about the dangers of eating too much protein – that it damages your kidneys, or causes bone loss etc. Now although protein restriction is certainly recommended for people with pre-existing kidney problems, there is no evidence that it can cause kidney damage in otherwise healthy people (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition). In actual fact, higher levels of protein have been shown to lower blood pressure and help against diabetes – which are two of the main risk factors for kidney disease. Studies have also shown that protein can help prevent osteoporosis too.
Overall, there is no evidence that a reasonably high protein intake has any adverse effects in healthy people trying to stay healthy.
Where do I get my protein?
Here’s the good bit – protein is found in a variety of foods: meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soya and even grains.
Now as I mentioned before protein is not just about quantity but also quality. There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein, and nine that the body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids—we need to eat them because we can’t make them ourselves. In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. So proteins that provide all the amino acids required by our body are called complete proteins – these include meats, poultry, fish, eggs and soya beans.
Other proteins don’t provide adequate amounts of all the 9 essential amino acids by themselves (but they can when combined with other foods, as part of a balanced diet). These are called incomplete proteins and include legumes (beans and pulses), some nuts and seeds, and grains
So yes, meat and eggs are complete proteins, and beans and nuts aren’t. But we don’t need every essential amino acid in every mouthful of food in every meal that we eat; we just need a sufficient amount of each amino acid every day. Most nutritionists now recognise that plant-based diets contain such a wide variety of amino acid profiles that vegetarians and vegans are virtually guaranteed to get all of their amino acids with very little effort. Variety is the key!
Still, some people want complete proteins in all of their meals. No problem—meat’s still not the only option.
So how do we make healthier choices when it comes to protein?
The best sources are those that provide all the essential amino acids your body needs. So if you do eat meat then obviously meat, fish and egg. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan then soya beans are an obvious choice, but there are also other plant based sources which are high in protein – like quinoa, legumes and nuts.
Vegetarian or not we can ALL benefit from eating more plant-based proteins. In addition to being great sources of protein, beans, peas, quinoa, lentils etc are also rich in other nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are also easier to digest, so they are kinder on the body, and on the planet.
Here are a few fantastic plant-based protein options:
- Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wah) – contains 8 grams protein per 1 cup cooked serving. It looks like couscous but it is FAR better for you. It contains 8 of the essential amino acids, and is so good that in the USA it’s recognised as a “super crop” because of its health benefits. It’s full of protein, iron, magnesium and fibre and is a great rice substitute. It can also be used in baking (e.g. gluten free sticky toffee pudding) and for brekkie as porridge (check out this recipe for a quinoa and cinnamon comfort brekkie).
- Buckwheat – contains 6 grams per 1 cup cooked serving. Buckwheat isn’t a type of wheat at all – it’s actually a relative of rhubarb! Buckwheat can be found made in to the Japanese noodle – Soba, but more commonly it’s eaten by either grinding it into flour (making a great base for gluten-free pancakes or biscuits) or by cooking the hulled kernels like porridge. Studies have shown that buckwheat may improve circulation, lower blood cholesterol and control blood glucose levels.
- Chia – 4 grams of protein per 2 tablespoon serving. Chia seeds are the highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, and they contain more fibre than flax seeds or nuts. Chia is also full of iron, calcium, zinc, and antioxidants. And even better about these delightful little seeds is that when soaked in water they form a gel which makes them a fantastic substitute for eggs in baking (check out a recipe for egg-free brownies) and for making healthy jam, puddings, and for thickening smoothies.
- Soya – 10 grams per ½ cup serving (firm tofu) or 15 grams per ½ cup serving (tempeh). I just had to mention the king of plant-based proteins! Soya contains all 9 essential amino acids and is therefore very often the go-to substitute for those wanting to avoid meat. Tempeh is made by fermenting the beans and is a great option as a sandwich filler/burger substitute and is delicious in stir-fries, but tofu is probably the best known soya product. There are so many uses for Tofu – even sweet ones like this mousse. As a rule, the harder the tofu, the higher the protein content.
- Mycoprotein (also known as Quorn) – 13 grams of protein per ½ cup serving. Originally developed to combat global food shortages, mycoprotein is more commonly known as “Quorn” and is made from a type of fungus. It is a complete protein, like Soya. Many Quorn products include egg whites however, so are not vegan-friendly, but the company is about to release a vegan range in the UK very soon so watch this space! It’s a great option for quick mid-week meals and can also be used to make a lovely lasagne or chili.
- Beans and Rice – 7 grams protein per 1 cup serving. One of the simplest, cheapest, and vegan-est meals in existence is also one of the best sources of protein around. Most beans (as well as lentils and chickpeas) are low in methionine and high in lysine, while rice is low in lysine and high in methionine. Put them together and you’ve got complete protein – on a par with meat! These meals are a great way to load up on protein and carbohydrates after an intense workout.
- Finally – Peanut Butter Sandwich! Yes the humble peanut butter sandwich contains 15 grams per 2-slice sandwich with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. How easy is that? Every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like rye, wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born. Peanut butter on rye bread or wholewheat bread is an easy snack that, while pretty high in calories, provides a massive dose of all the essential amino acids and plenty of healthy fats too.
See, there are so many options for plant-based proteins in your diet! But if you are going to eat animal protein then try to limit it to one portion a day (and limit red meat to once a week), and go for the best meat you can afford – free range, grass fed, high quality meat. Always go for lean cuts of meat like chicken breast, pork loin etc. Avoid ground meat, burgers, sausages etc as they tend to be produced from the fattier cuts of meat and often include skin and fat.
If you eat fish then aim to have 100 – 125g a week and choose fish high in Omegas like salmon, mackerel or tuna.
All this having been said, don’t get too hung up on tracking your protein. If you’re just a healthy person trying to stay healthy, then simply eating high quality protein with most of your meals (the majority from plant-based sources) will mean you’re getting plenty of protein in your diet.
Do let me know if you try any of the recipes mentioned here and see how you get on adding a little more protein to your day!
(This article was originally published on pureformfitness.co.uk)