What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that makes up the foundation of the food we eat. Proteins are made up of amino acid chains which help with the cell regeneration which is necessary to keep us alive.
The foods we eat vary in the quantity of protein they possess, making it important to understand your requirements and how much protein you should be eating.
For an example of what protein does on a daily basis, see below:
- Making up and repairing the structure of every cell and tissue formation in the body
- Hormone production and regulation
- Transporting nutrients around the body
- Muscle growth
- Regulating the blood clotting process
- Appetite regulation
- Slowing stomach emptying
- Regulating the release of appetite hormones
What are amino acids?
When digested, protein is broken down into amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids, 9 of which are essential. This means you need to get these 9 from the food you eat. The other non-essential amino acids are made in the liver.
When digested, amino acids are broken down and reordered in a way that allows the body to use them for the essential functions listed above.
High protein foods
Meat and fish sources of protein
- Chicken breast - 27g of protein per 100g
- Turkey breast - 26g of protein per 100g
- Salmon fillet - 25g of protein per 100g
- Tuna - 25g of protein per 100g
- Pork loin - 24g of protein per 100g
- Lean beef - 21g of protein per 100g
Vegetarian sources of protein
- Whey protein - 75g of protein per 100g
- Eggs - 13g of protein per 100g
- Cottage cheese - 12g of protein per 100g
- Greek yogurt - 10g of protein per 100g
Vegan sources of protein
- Seitan - 75g of protein per 100g
- Pea protein - 71g of protein per 100g
- Peanut butter - 26g of protein per 100g
- Tempeh - 19g of protein per 100g
- Edamame - 11g of protein per 100g
- Oats - 11g of protein per 100g
- Tofu - 8g of protein per 100g
- Red lentils - 7g of protein per 100g
- Chickpeas - 6.7g of protein per 100g
- Peas - 5g of protein per 100g
- Quinoa - 4.3g of protein per 100g
Are all protein sources the same?
Whole sources of protein (when protein is the main macronutrient, as opposed to carbs or fats) are eggs, beef, tofu, fish, chicken, turkey and cottage cheese.
Protein can also be rated depending on its digestibility and the availability of amino acids inside the protein.
The greater the amount of consumed protein the body can use for maintenance and growth, the higher the score. Eggs, meat, fish, whey protein and soya score very high on these measures so should ideally be prioritised where possible.
This shows why it’s not just about getting a lot of protein into our diet. It’s also important to think about the quality of the protein we eat to meet this number.
Does cooking affect the quality of protein?
How you cook and prepare your protein is incredibly important.
If you cover your food in butter, oils, fats or fry them, this drastically decreases the quality of the food even if it is still a good protein source.
Avoid frying food if you can and minimise the use of oil wherever possible. Grilling your protein is a far healthier way of cooking it.
How we digest protein and why it matters
As the food industry continues to develop, the call for more high-protein alternatives to traditional food items grows louder. For instance, high protein yoghurts, snack bars, pancakes, and cereals are all now staples on supermarket shelves.
One thing to keep in mind is your personal ability to digest these products. For example, due to the gums and artificial products in some protein bars, some individuals may find them hard to digest.
If you are looking to get more protein in your diet, don’t do so at the expense of any other health requirements you may have. For example, if you are lactose intolerant or suffer with coeliac disease, make sure you are just as diligent when purchasing high-protein alternatives to standard products.
Is all protein good for you?
Just because a food is labelled high protein it does not mean it is necessarily good for you.
Some high protein fats can also be high in saturated fats. Over the long term, these can impact our cholesterol levels. Protein snacks may also be high in sugar, making them just as unhealthy as the lower protein alternative.
How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein you need varies based on several different factors.
- If you are a sedentary individual, 0.75g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is the recommended amount of protein. For example, if you are 60kg, this would mean 45g
- If you are exercising regularly and your goal is fat loss, this recommended number changes to between 1.6 and 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
- Alternatively, if you are exercising regularly and your goal is muscle gain, your goal should be to eat between 1.8 to 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
These are just recommendations and don’t take into consideration things like gender, volume of training, or body composition.
The reason you may need more protein if you are exercising is that protein is crucial for the repairing of muscle tears which occur when you are training/moving.
In addition to thinking about training, teenagers, women going through menopause, and older individuals can all also benefit from a higher protein diet because of bone density changes and maintenance requirements.
What are the signs I’m not eating enough protein?
Because it’s so vital to everyday bodily function, our body will let us know if we aren’t getting enough protein.
Common signs include:
- Pale or dry skin
- Weak bones
- Changes to your hair
- Frequently getting sick
- Immune system issues
- Low bone density
- Difficulties with growth in childhood
How common are protein deficiencies?
If you include some form of protein in at least two of your meals each day and you aren’t regularly performing strenuous resistance training, it’s unlikely you’re protein deficient.
If you are training intensely and aren’t considering your protein intake, it’s advisable you calculate how much protein you need daily.
Are protein powders effective?
Protein powders are a great way to supplement your protein intake if you are training heavily and want a quick and easy protein source.
As the industry develops, we now have access to a variety of protein powders including whey, casein, pea, and soya variations.
If you’re looking for ways you can use your protein powder outside of traditional shakes, try adding it to porridge, smoothie bowls, fruit and nut bars, overnight oats, pancake mix, or Greek yogurt.
Considerations for vegetarians and vegans
If you are vegetarian or vegan, there are some things you need to take into consideration when thinking about your protein intake.
Only a few sources of plant-based proteins are complete proteins (proteins that contain all the essential amino acids). These include soya, tofu, tempeh, and quinoa. For vegetarians, you can add eggs and dairy to this list.
This means vegans and vegetarians need to know how to pair complementary proteins together to make sure they are getting all essential amino acids in their diet.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan and are concerned about your protein intake, make a conscious effort to get as many different protein sources into your diet as you can.
Examples include of complementary pairing include:
- Rice & legumes (e.g. lentil & spinach dhal with wholegrain rice)
- Legumes & grains (e.g. chickpeas, quinoa and roasted veg)
- Nuts/seeds & legumes (e.g. roasted chickpea and walnut salad)
Last updated Wednesday 22 November 2023
First published on Wednesday 22 November 2023