It’s easy to get confused when looking for information about protein. This no-nonsense blog will give you scientifically accurate information touching on the benefits of protein, outlining how much protein you need to eat and giving you practical tips to eat enough protein.
1. What are the benefits of eating protein?
Before we dive into the benefits of eating protein it’s worth considering what protein is. Protein is often referred to as the building blocks of life and is a macronutrient that provides us with 4 kilocalories of energy per gram. The protein we consume in our diets is made up of amino acids . Among other functions, protein is crucial for growing and maintaining body tissues and muscle. Insufficient protein can lead to complications like stunting of growth in children and can leave you feeling lethargic and tired. But what about the planet? Shouldn’t we be eating fewer animals and opting for plant-based options? Well, research shows that pasture-raised beef and lamb are actually part of the solution in fighting the climate crisis and that in fact our bodies don’t absorb as much protein from fake meats as they do from real meat . If you’re interested in this area, have a look at Diana Rogers book Sacred Cow where she unpacks the research for and against meat in the debate about climate change and human health. She points out that ‘fake meat is about profit. It’s not about your health, farmers, animals or ecosystems’.
So what are the benefits of eating protein?
1. Protein helps with satiety.
Eating enough protein will help you feel full and probably stop you from reaching for a snack between meals. If you find you have a craving for something in the afternoon after lunch, it is probably a good idea to reflect on what you are eating for breakfast and lunch. Are you eating a carbohydrate heavy breakfast of cereal or toast followed by a sandwich or wrap for lunch? This is likely why you are feeling hungry in the afternoon. Swap the carbs for an omelet for breakfast and a yummy salad topped with chicken, salmon or tuna for lunch and you will likely feel much better.
2. Protein helps to stabilise your blood glucose.
Unlike when you eat carbohydrates and your blood sugar spikes, when you eat protein (and fat) your blood sugar remains relatively stable. As a result you are far less likely to feel that afternoon slump or find yourself on an energy and mood roller coaster throughout the day.
3. Protein is full of essential nutrients.
Unlike carbohydrates, protein is packed with essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own. This means we need to get them from our diet and they help us maintain optimal health. Essential amino nutrients include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These micronutrients are all crucial for several processes throughout the body. One example is tryptophan which is converted by the body into melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and serotonin (the happy hormone). This means if we do not eat enough tryptophan our sleep and mood will be affected.
2. Protein helps with weight loss.
Research shows us that people who eat sufficient protein when they are trying to lose weight tend to have better results and are more likely to sustain those results in the long term. In fact, a modest increase in protein intake has been shown to help with weight maintenance. In one study, increasing protein from 15% to 18% of calories reduced weight regain by 50% .
2. How much protein should I eat?
It was believed for a long time (based on some pretty flawed science) that humans only required 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram . Essentially that means that if you are a 65 kg adult female you only need to eat 52 g of protein each day. To put that into perspective, that would equate to about 200 grams of chicken. This level of protein was based on what humans needed to eat to prevent deficiency and ill health and did not consider the requirements for optimal function and THRIVING. It is now well established that we actually need about 1.4 – 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day . These guidelines are based on people who are moderately active, if you are a weekend warrior or hit the gym regularly you will likely need to consume more protein. Your body requires protein for something called muscle protein synthesis which is just a fancy way of saying growing muscle. It is a good goal to aim for 30 grams of protein per meal. It is also important to consider that it is easier for your body to absorb protein from animal sources like meat, eggs, dairy and fish rather than plant foods like legumes, beans and spinach.
3. Four protein-rich foods:
Getting enough protein can be tricky so here are FIVE protein rich foods (that aren’t protein powder or bars) to help you optimise your protein intake, beat the afternoon slump and reach your health goals.
1. Meat – Beef, Pork & Lamb
There’s a reason many dieticians and nutritionists swear by the meat and three vegetable model of eating – it’s because it works. A palm sized piece of meat for dinner is a great way to ensure you are getting enough protein.
Adding some chicken (again about a palm size) to your lunch time salad with some avocado for fat is a great way to keep your blood sugar stable through the afternoon and get your protein in.
Fish is a great option for lunches because you can add some canned tuna or salmon to your salad or have it alongside some cooked veggies. It also contains omega-3 oils which will help support your brain health.
Eggs are easy peasy and a great option for breakfast. You can fry them with some greens, tomatoes and mushrooms or make an omelette or scramble them with your favourite roast vegetables or even make a frittata loaded with cheese and vegetables and chicken.
What’s the deal with protein powders you ask? Well, first things first there are different types of protein powders (whey, whey isolate and plant based protein powders like pea protein). Each of them have their own unique pros and cons. If you are considering adding a protein powder into your diet you should first consider three things. Firstly, does dairy upset your stomach. If the answer is yes then you may want to think twice before buying a whey protein powder as the casein found in these protein powders can sometimes cause gut discomfort. Secondly, look closely at any sweeteners added to the protein powder, these can have a similar effect and also might raise your blood glucose. If you are watching your carbs then it’s a good idea to read the label before throwing a scoop into your morning smoothie. Finally, quality. It is key to buy good quality protein powder.
If you’ve been through the checklist and think you are ready to buy a protein powder the last thing you need to consider is the purpose of including this supplement in your diet. If weight loss is your goal, you may want to proceed with caution. It is very easy to over consume calories in liquid form (i.e. adding your protein powder to a smoothie) especially when protein powders come in delicious flavours like cookies and cream. Be mindful you don’t end up drinking 2 or 3 protein shakes a day cause this will undoubtedly increase your calorie intake and may undermine your weight-loss efforts. Something you might like to do is add your protein powder to healthy baked products or homemade porridge formulas. Often, the physical act of eating our calories helps us be more mindful of what we are putting in our mouths. But, if you are on the opposite side of the spectrum and are very active (or have super active kids) then protein powder might be a great way to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients.
Please bear in mind that this blog is for educational purposes only. If you need personal advice about your nutrition it is always a good idea to get in touch with a nutritionist or dietician who can help guide you.