It’s safe to say, the world’s become a little protein obsessed. Protein bars, protein chocolate, protein shakes, protein balls. Have a look around you next time you are at your local shop. Almost every product is marketed by its content of protein. But where did all this come from? Why is protein so important, how much do you need and how do you know if you are getting enough?
Why do you need protein?
Protein is essential in your diet for the body to grow and repair. Our bodies are mostly made up of protein, so we need it for healthy hair, skin, bones and muscle. Many of us associate protein with increasing muscle mass, and we’re not wrong. When you perform strength-based exercise, you are causing protein breakdown in your muscles. For your muscles to then repair themselves and grow back stronger, you need to provide your muscles with amino acids (protein is made up of these!), and an especially important one is leucine.
Protein also plays an important role in our diet because of its satiating effect. When you compare it with carbohydrates and fat, it is by far the most filling. Eating enough protein in your meals will help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce any unnecessary snacking. It also takes longer to digest protein than any other macronutrient, meaning your metabolic rate increases and you burn more calories for a short while after you eat it. No wonder everyone’s gone protein-crazy!
How much do you need?
If you are not particularly active, you are advised to eat 0.8g of protein per kilogram of your body weight daily. So, if you weighed 70kg, you would aim to eat around 56g of protein per day. This is the equivalent of about 2 palm sized portions of meat, fish, tofu, nuts or pulses. Athletes and the elderly may have higher protein requirements and are recommended to consume a bit more. If you want to find out your specific needs, you can work them out here. It is also important to space out your protein intake between your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Are you getting enough?
For the majority of people, the answer is yes. Most people are consuming more protein than they need, without even knowing it. In fact, the extra stuff just gets excreted out into your urine. Even vegetarians and vegans are at low risk of protein deficiency, so they needn’t worry either. You don’t need to eat meat to get enough protein in your diet, and you will be surprised at how many foods are sources of protein. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt are good sources of protein, including their non-dairy alternatives. Oats and wholegrain foods like brown pasta, rice and bread contain protein as well as a large variety of fruits and vegetables. The richest plant sources of protein include beans, lentils, nuts, tofu and soy products. But even veggies like avocados, broccoli and potatoes contain small amounts that all add up if you eat a well-balanced diet. Many fruits like blackberries, kiwis, apricots and guavas contain protein too.
Take home message
If you are eating enough of a varied and well-balanced diet, there’s no reason to worry about your protein intake. Athletes and the elderly can benefit from extra protein due to their increased demands. Supplementing your diet with extra protein can be beneficial to those who need a convenient, quick and easy source of protein, however there is nothing in supplements that you can’t get from food.
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