Everything You Need to Know About Protein
What is Protein
Protein is one of the 3 key macronutrients, the other two being fat and carbohydrates. Every cell and tissue in the body contains protein, meaning it is essential for growth, repair and maintenance of good health. Protein helps us heal when we’re injured, keep hair and nails strong, maintain and build muscle and make hormones and enzymes needed for cellular actions to keep us alive.
The amount of protein each individual requires varies based on factors such as age, body weight, activity levels and goals and therefore will change throughout a person's life. We’ll come onto protein requirements more later but for now a little more on what protein is.
Protein is made up of amino acids, 9 of which are named ‘essential’ as our bodies can’t make them, thus we must consume them. These are Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine.
‘Complete’ proteins are proteins which contain all 9 amino acids. These include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, quinoa and soy.
‘Incomplete’ proteins are low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Most plant-based sources of protein are incomplete such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and some grains. Soy and quinoa being the exception.
When eating a plant-based diet it is important to eat a variety of the above to ensure you’re getting sufficient amounts of all 9 essential amino acids. Combining legumes and beans with either whole grains or nuts and seeds will make a complete protein, i.e. rice & beans, wholemeal bread & nut butter and pitta bread & hummus. Vegetables also contain protein, so if eating a plant-based diet as long as you’re eating a range of foods you don’t need to worry about not getting sufficient amounts of each essential amino acid.
Protein synthesis is the process in which cells make protein. When mentioned in terms of fitness we are often talking about muscle protein synthesis which is the process by which amino acids are used to build or repair muscle. Increasing your protein intake to the optimum amount combined with resistance training stimulates muscle protein synthesis which will help you maintain and build muscle. Muscle mass naturally decreases as we age so maintaining and building muscle is important for your health in the long run.
How Much Should You Eat
The current protein recommendation for adults is 0.75g per kg of bodyweight. This works out to an average of 56g/day for men and 45g/day for women. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the average daily intake in the UK for men is 88g and for women 64g. So this above the recommended and the amount needed to avoid deficiency.
However, there has been a multitude of studies that suggest the optimum amount for most is 1.6g per kg of bodyweight. This then increases to 1.8-2g for highly active people and up to 2.2g for those looking to maximise hypertrophy (muscle building).
For the general population, and the majority of you reading this, it’s recommended to aim for 1.2-1.6g per kg of body weight for optimum protein intake. So if you’re 58kg this looks like 70-93g of protein a day, or if you’re 75kg it would be 90-120g of protein a day. To work out your optimum simply times your body weight in kg by 1.2 or 1.6 or whatever it is you’re aiming for.
Higher protein diets (around the 1.6 mark) are also recommended for individuals looking to lose weight. This is because protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, meaning it will keep you fuller for longer. As hunger is one of the biggest problems when it comes to dietary adherence, eating foods that keep you full is vital for successful weight loss.
It is also worth noting for optimal muscle gain and satiety protein intake should be spread out over the course of a day, rather than eaten all in one meal. Some studies/articles suggest you should limit protein to 20-30g per meal as this is where muscle protein synthesis is maximised. But we don’t only eat protein for muscle building so I wouldn’t focus on this. Instead, focus on having a good protein source with every meal. A lot of people have most of their protein at lunch and dinner, so start by making sure you have protein at breakfast too and then your protein intake should be spread sufficiently throughout the day.
Do You Need to Supplement
You can find protein supplements everywhere nowadays and a lot of products market themselves as ‘high protein’ to draw you in, but we’ll come back to this in the next section. As we learnt above there is a difference between the amount of protein needed to avoid deficiency and the optimum amount for health. Most of us eat enough to cover the first but could benefit from eating more for the latter.
First, you should try to get as much protein through your diet rather than simply relying on protein products. One way to do this is to decide on your protein source for each meal first and then base the rest of your meals around that. You could also select snacks higher in protein too. If you struggle with this or still want to get more protein on top of that then this is where protein supplements come in handy.
Supplements make it easy to increase your protein without having to think about it too much. You can add protein powder to pancakes, smoothies, baking and so on. Or you could buy pre-made protein snacks, just be aware of the other ingredients in them and avoid overindulging. Just because they’re labelled protein, doesn’t make them healthy.
When choosing a protein powder look at the ingredients and calorie contents as some are designed to aid with weight gain, so if this isn’t your goal you probably better off choosing another. If you’re using vegan protein choose ones with multiple protein sources to ensure it contains all 9 essential amino acids or use the protein soy isolate.
If you do choose to use protein supplements, remember they’re not a magic pill. They won’t get you results quicker or without the rest of the hard work. They are simply an extra protein source on top of your diet.
Problems with Protein Branding
Now back to products marketing themselves as ‘high protein’. High protein diets have become a bit of a health trend recently with protein products becoming hugely popular. But labelling of food can be very questionable so be careful what you’re buying into.
For example, the Fitness Chef of Instagram recently shared a post showing that although a product may claim more protein, weight for weight with its counterpart the protein levels are similar or even less. He highlighted Weetabix in particular. Weetabix Protein lists protein per 2 biscuits at 12g, but this actually includes 135ml of milk. The actual protein per 2 biscuits in 7.1g and in normal Weetabix its 4.5g. So you're paying extra money for 2.6g of protein. Not worth it in my opinion. He listed a couple of other products too so I’ll link the post here.
Before you buy a ‘protein’ product read the label and compare to its ‘non-protein’ counterpart as there may be no different and you could save yourself some pennies.
As mentioned above, being branded as protein doesn’t make it healthier either. Lots of protein bars have the same amount of calories, sugar and fat as normal chocolate bars. I still like to have them as they increase my protein intake, curb my sweet tooth and keep me fuller for longer than a chocolate bar. But if you’re eating them because they’re ‘healthier’ but you actually really want a chocolate bar. Eat a chocolate bar.
Take Away Points
Protein is a macronutrient and is made up of amino acids, 9 of which it is essential to get through our diet.
It is essential for growth, repair and maintenance of good health.
The current recommended intake is 0.75g per kg of body weight, but most could benefit from increasing this to 1.2-1.6g.
Protein supplements are helpful, but not a magic pill and do not equal results. Try to get protein in through your diet first.
Be wary of protein branding. Read labels and don’t be fooled by clever marketing.