Protein ~ What? Why? How much?

What is protein?

Protein is one of the most important macronutrients in our diet. A macronutrient is a type of food (nutrient) that the body requires in large amounts (macro ~ taken from the Greek word large/big).  Macronutrients provide energy (calories) in large amounts and are found in protein, carbohydrates and fats. The building blocks of protein are comprised of 20 amino acids.  Of these 20 amino acids, 9 are termed ‘essential’ which means the body cannot make them and has to obtain them from our diet. Protein is utilised by the body in every living cell:  your skin, hair, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and muscles. Amazing as it sounds protein is (amongst other things) responsible for your hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.  Importantly protein not only provides energy, it promotes healthy growth/development, helps regulate your bodily functions and is responsible for growth, repair and maintenance of all our cells. Wow! Who’d have thought it? Protein is being bandied about in the diet industry as a sort of panacea of weight loss and a lot of the time the importance of what it really is gets lost in the ‘lose weight’ race.

Why do we need it?

The short answer to this is that if we didn’t eat protein the human race would cease to exist as we can’t survive without it. The next question is…

What foods shall I eat to get my protein?

Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk, cheese are ‘whole proteins’ and contain all the essential amino acids. If you do not eat meat or fish then you can get your protein from plants, legumes (peas/beans/peanuts), grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables.  However, as they are ‘incomplete’ proteins and do not contain all the amino acids you can combine them to make a complete protein.  For example beans and rice, lentils with potatoes, legumes with sunflower seeds or nuts, or grains with nuts or seeds.  Eating like this makes for a varied and interesting diet but you just need to pay a little bit more attention to ensure you are getting enough protein. Which leads us to the question of…

How much protein do we need?

There is a lot of conjecture about the exact amount of protein we need in our diet. It is generally accepted that 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight will give you optimal protein to maintain muscle mass as you age, support weight loss and provide adequate intake if you are physically active (40 mins moderate exercise 4-5 days a week including a couple of good resistance gyms sessions a week).  It goes without saying that if you exercise less or have a sedentary lifestyle you will require less protein and there are many online calculators that you can use to determine your personal level.

How will eating more protein help me lose weight?

Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and because of this, helps you feel full.  It also encourages your body to secrete a gut hormone called peptide YY which decreases the appetite which can in turn help manage your cravings. Keep it real:  If you eat more protein in your diet then reduce the amount of carbohydrates you consume and increase your vegetable intake.  The reason for this is that protein is generally higher in calories per gram (if it contains fat – think steak/pork chop etc) and vegetables are a ‘complex’ carbohydrate which means they contain carbs but take longer to be digested which in turn keeps you feeling fuller for longer. You can’t outrun a good diet and won’t go far wrong if your plate contains a palm-sized portion of protein, an upturned handful of carbs and 1-2 fist sizes of vegetables.