Whether you’re the type that shuns carbs or the one that avoids all fat, one food group that’s probably on your radar is protein – but it can be confusing. Not if you read this need-to-know guide
In recent years, protein has become the macronutrient literally on everyone’s lips. But according to new research by Healthista, over 90 per cent of us don’t know how much we need.
Our survey of 1100 women aged 25-65 found a large proportion of them weren’t clear on sources of protein, with 71% thinking there was more protein in 100 grams of chicken than 100 grams of soya beans (in fact, the soya beans contain 36 grams and the chicken only 31 grams).
over 90 per cent of us don’t know how much protein we need
Whether you’re a meat eater, a vegetarian or vegan, these are the signs you may not be getting enough protein:
You’re craving salty or sweet foods
‘Protein slows down the release of sugars into the blood stream, and therefore helps to ensure blood sugars are balanced,’ says leading nutritionist May Simpkin.
‘A low protein, high carb diet will release sugars quickly into the blood stream. Once insulin is released to remove these sugars, cravings will kick in as blood sugars quickly drop’.
Your muscles are flabby
If you’re not eating enough protein, your body will have no choice but to break down muscle to ensure its needs, Simpkin asserts, an effect that will be pronounced if you exercise a lot as your body will be using muscle as fuel which is not a good idea.
‘This will result in weakened muscle tone, reduced muscle mass and weak joint support. Without enough protein, your body will also take longer to recover following injury you may also get increased muscle and joint aches,’ says Simpkin.
You hair’s failing out
Okay maybe it’s not that serious but if your hair skin and nails aren’t as radiant as you would like, your protein intake might be the reason.
‘Lack lustre or thinning hair, weak or brittle nails, nail ridges and dry, flaky skin are all initial indicators of lack of protein, as the body is unable to regenerate the cells efficiently to replace dead cells,’ says Simpkin.
Poor immune health
Getting sick often is an indicator of poor immune health and can be as a result of lack of proteins, as immune cells are all made up of protein.
‘Without enough protein, immune cells cannot repair and multiply quickly enough to combat bugs and germs,’ says Simpkin.
Can’t concentrate? Blame your lunch. ‘Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are all made up of proteins.
‘A lack of protein can lead to low mood, poor concentration and reduced mental alertness and these can also be exacerbated with similar symptoms of poor blood sugar balance if you’re not eating enough protein’.
Can’t sleep? Blame your dinner. Without enough protein, hormone production is compromised and cause imbalances that will ultimately affect sleep quality and disrupt your night’s sleep.
‘Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps to induce sleep and eating a little protein around bedtime can help to improve sleep quality,’ says Simpkin. Find tryptophan in protein foods such as seeds and nuts, turkey breast, some cheeses, beans and lentils and eggs.
The release of stress hormones can increase muscle and tissue breakdown and it is important to note that this can be either physical stress (from over-exercising) or emotional stress, Simpkin asserts.
If you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, there will be nothing to rebuild your tissues that are suffering as a result of your stressful lifestyle.
Why is protein so important?
While a third (31%) of survey respondents said they knew protein was good for them but they didn’t know why, a fifth (19%) couldn’t name a single protein benefit.
It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of proteins, says Simpkin. We need protein for virtually every process that takes place in the body.
‘Firstly, protein is an important component of every cell in the body and is an important building block for hair, skin and nails as well as muscle and cartilage.
We need protein for virtually every process that takes place in the body.
‘It is therefore crucial for tissue and muscle repair and a deficiency in protein intake will compromise the efficiency of this process. You also need protein to produce enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters, all essential to the body’s day to day functioning’.
How much protein do you actually need?
According to government guidelines, your protein consumption should be 0.8g per kilogram of body weight. For an average sedentary woman, this is around 46g of protein per day (56g for men).
‘This is a minimum daily average and should be considered a starting point,’ says Simpkin. ‘Your protein requirement will be based on your personal health goals and lifestyle and factors such as activity levels, age, muscle mass and current health status need to be considered’.
In the following scenarios, Simpkin has recommendations for protein needs:
If you’re an average healthy woman with a sedentary lifestyle: 1.0g/kg of body weight.
If you exercise regularly: 1.1-1.6g/kg of body weight.
If you’re very active and focusing on resistance training for around an hour a day: 1.2-2.0g/kg of body weight.
If you want to lose weight and training/exercising around three times per week: 1.2-1.5g/kg of body weight.
If you’re an endurance athletes: 1.3-1.6g/kg of body weight.
How to get enough complete protein
Eating quality proteins from lean beef, fish, poultry, eggs and diary as well as plant-based sources will provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs to function properly.
‘In nutrition terms, the word ‘essential’ means these amino acids must come from the diet because your body can’t make them,’ says Simpkin.
‘Animal proteins are ‘complete’ proteins as they contain all these essential amino acids, whereas plant proteins are not all complete and will need to be combined to ensure an intake of all the essential amino acids.
Other complete protein combos include: wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa and beans/pulses such as chickpeas, soybeans and lentils.
‘Foods that provide all eight essential amino acids include meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy as well as wholegrains like quinoa and brown rice,’ Simpkin asserts.
Eating eggs and dairy (and fish if you’re a pescatarian) will be a good source of first class protein alongside wholegrains to ensure variety in food choices,’ says Simpkin.
Whilst grains do contain all of these essential amino acids, they are in varying amounts and therefore combining these foods in reasonable quantities will ensure adequate intake of each (see below).
‘Ensure protein from a variety of sources, mixing for example soy foods and grains or beans/pulses where you can,’ Simpkin advises. ‘This will ensure adequate intake of the essential amino acids the body needs’.
Other complete protein combos include: wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa and beans/pulses such as chickpeas, soybeans and lentils. Adding nuts and seeds will provide varied amino acids and essential fatty acids for optimal health.
When should you get most of your protein?
Like most of our readers we were baffled by protein – especially when to eat it. The survey results for example, also found that nearly two thirds of us get their protein fix only at dinner.
‘Most people have a huge protein fix at dinner but very little throughout the day,’ says Rick Hay nutritionist and lecturer in weight management at the College of Naturopathic Medicine.
nearly two thirds of us get their protein fix only at dinner.
‘This not only puts pressure on the body’s digestion it also doesn’t give your body the best chance to use the protein and break it down into amino acids needed to rebuild and reshape the body.
‘If you have too much protein all at once, your body will likely excrete all those precious amino acids through your poo and may store the excess as fat,’ says Hay.
Have protein at every meal
May Simpkin agrees. ‘Research has shown that eating your protein, spread out throughout the day is more effective when building muscle than eating the majority in the evening meal,’ she explains.
‘Protein is a complex nutrient and requires more energy to break down than carbohydrates,’ says Simpkin. That means simply eating it can boost your metabolic rate, helping with weight loss.
‘Furthermore, as this complex nutrient also takes longer to break down and process as part of the digestion, there is the additional benefit of helping you to feel fuller for longer, curbing cravings and reducing appetite – another good reason to have a little at every meal’.
…and pre- and post- workout
A 2018 review confirms that there is good evidence to suggest that eating protein pre and/or post workout helps significantly with muscle building.
‘It has also been shown that protein intake immediately after exercise (within 1 hour) plays an important role in ensuring optimal recovery and generally optimizing physical performance,’ says Simpkin.
What does a good day’s worth of protein eating look like?
Still confused? We tasked Healthista Nutritional Director Rick Hay with the job of giving us visual ideas of exactly what to eat if you want to ensure adequate protein intake.
The following calculations have been made for a woman who weight 60kg and is moderately active 2-3 times a week, says Hay.
The Meat eater
The simple rule that will help you get enough protein
‘As a rule of thumb aim to eat two palm sizes portions per day whether it be meat, fish, poultry, nuts, tofu, tempeh, beans or pulses,’ says Hay. Then you can add small amounts of protein to other meals.
‘If you’re a meateater this might be chicken or turkey breast as part of lunch and grilled salmon as part of dinner.
‘If you’re vegetarian, scrambled organic/free range eggs with avocado as breakfast, falafel wrap for lunch and tofu or tempeh stir fry or lentil/ bean casserole at dinner.
‘Meateaters or vegetarians can supplement with a high quality protein bar as a snack or post exercise,’ says Hay.
‘KIND Protein bars are low sugar and pack in 12 grams of protein per serve.
‘Vegans can try beans on toast for breakfast and lentil, tempeh and vegetable soup/stew or chickpea and tofu veggie curry served with a quinoa/brown rice mix for dinner, Hay asserts.
Rick Hay is an Anti-Ageing and Fitness Nutritionist with many years clinical experience in nutrition, naturopathy, botanical medicine and iridology. He specializes in obesity treatment and weight management. He writes a regular Natural Health and Fitness Blog for Healthista. Find out more at rickhay.co.uk. Follow Rick on Twitter @rickhayuk
May Simpkin is a UK registered practitioner with a Masters Science degree in Personalised Nutrition. She is an experienced clinician, practicing functional medicine from an evidence base, providing the latest research into nutrition.