Everywhere you look these days you are greeted by an ‘added protein’ label or a ‘high protein’ snack wrapper. Food manufacturers and Marketeers have joined forces to capitalise on the Nation’s sudden desperate need to increase their protein intake, whilst still satisfying a sweet tooth with their favourite chocolate bars, drinks and cereals.
But do we ever stop to question exactly what’s inside these ‘high protein’ bars and drinks? Do we question why we need all of this extra protein? And could we actually get the protein we need from natural foods and a balanced diet?
What is Protein?
Proteins are molecules that are made of chains of amino acids (smaller building blocks), folded into very specific 3D shapes. They are ubiquitous and are found in every cell of the body, where they are involved in metabolic processes. They are also fundamental structural elements within our muscles, bones, hair, skin, nails and blood. Protein makes up a large proportion of the mass of our bodies- second only to water.
This means that taking in enough dietary protein is crucial for repair and growth. This grows increasingly important when training or increasing the intensity of an exercise programme. As you exercise, particularly through resistance training, your muscles will be damaged and fatigued and will require a reliable source of protein to be able to repair themselves and grow. With a low protein diet and an increase in exercise, muscle fatigue and poor recovery will be an issue.
What if we don’t get enough?
Extreme protein deficiency is rare in developed countries, however, this problem is severe in Central Africa and South Asia, where malnutrition is a problem and 30% of children suffer.
People at risk in the developed world are people following vegetarian and vegan diets, people who are hospitalised and older people.
Protein plays such as crucial structural and metabolic role in our bodies that insufficient protein manifests itself in a number of ways.
Issues can include:
- Muscle wasting
- Skin, hair and nail problems
- Greater risk of bone fractures
- Greater chance of severe infections
- Increased appetite and calorie intake
Can we have too much?
What happens if we consume too much protein? Well depending on how long you’re over-consuming and how much you’re taking in, will determine the severity of the issues.
From bad breath to kidney issues, you can have too much of a good thing.
Issues can include:
- Potential weight gain
- Bad breath (in part due to your body going into ketosis)
- Constipation (due to a resulting reduction in fibre, particularly if carbohydrate intake is dramatically reduced)
- Dehydration (excess nitrogen from increased protein is flushed out of the body, leading to dehydration)
- Kidney damage (the excess nitrogen that needs to be flushed out of the body causes the kidneys to work harder, leading to long-term damage)
How much do we need?
So how do you know if you’re getting enough protein? Firstly, remember this plate?
So we know that around ¼ of your plate should be foods rich in protein. This amount of protein will look slightly different for different people. Initially this will depend on your body weight. So the heavier you are the more protein your body needs for proper function and repair. Your protein requirement will then increase as your activity level increases: from living a sedentary life to training as an athlete.
Here’s a simple guide to help you calculate exactly how much protein you need on a daily basis.
Daily protein requirements: grams of protein per kilogram body mass
Sedentary adult= 0.8g / kg
Recreational adult exerciser= 0.8 – 1.5g / kg
Adult endurance athlete= 1.2 – 1.6g / kg
Growing teenage athlete= 1.5 – 2.0g / kg
Adult building muscle mass= 1.5 – 1.7g / kg
Estimated upper limit; adults= 2.0g / kg
So for example, a 60kg recreational adult exerciser would require approximately 60g of protein every day. As we can’t store any extra protein we consume and don’t use, the best way to consume this 60g of protein is in even amounts throughout the day: 20g for Breakfast, 20g for Lunch and 20g for Dinner.
Where can we get it?
Good protein sources are meat, poultry, fish, pulses (beans, lentils, peas), dairy foods, eggs, nuts, seeds.
Some protein sources offer ‘complete’ proteins (they have all of the essential amino acids within the protein complex that our bodies need). Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and to a lesser degree, soy-based foods and quinoa, are good examples of ‘complete’ proteins.
However, some protein sources offer ‘incomplete’ proteins which have a few vital amino acids missing. These foods should be eaten in combination with other protein sources. Pulses, nuts, cereals and grains are examples of incomplete proteins. It is vital for anybody following a vegetarian or vegan diet to be conscious of the need to ‘mix and match’ these protein sources with unrefined carbohydrates such as grains and cereals, which contain small amounts of protein, to fill in the missing essential amino acids.
Good combinations offering ‘complete’ proteins include:
- rice and pulses
- vegetables and seeds
- nuts and vegetables
- grains and pulses
So when it comes to planning out your portions how much of these sources should you eat? Well, if we use our 60kg person as an example. This person will need around 60g of protein per day and if we spread this out evenly throughout the day that’s 20g at each meal.
What does 20g look like?
These portion images are not necessarily advisable portion sizes to eat. For example, it is not recommended to eat a plate full of eggs or a plate full of lentils in one sitting. Use these images as a guide to ‘mix and match’ your protein sources at meal times, to achieve the full 20g without overdosing on calories! (Hover over the images to find out more).
For some great recipes and ways of combing your protein sources into balanced meals, visit this website.
Should I drink protein shakes and eat protein bars?
To help you decide here are a few things to consider:
Products that claim to increase your protein intake whist saving you time and providing a balanced ‘meal’, normally come at a premium. Do you have the spare cash to spend? Be sure to work out the weekly, monthly and yearly cost of these dietary supplements before embarking on a diet change.
Balance out the convenience of shakes and bars with the long-term cost. Could you just as easily plan out your meals and prepare in advance to achieve the same nutritional value as a shake or a bar? The answer is more than likely yes.
Beware the hidden sugar, calories and extra preservatives, flavourings and sweeteners. It’s not just the protein you’re getting a large helping of…
The stated protein content may not be all it seems. Proteins are biological molecules that are folded very specifically into a 3D shape. This specific shape allows each protein to carry out a particular function. Under high heat or changes to the chemical environment these proteins are denatured (their shape is permanently changed and therefore they become useless). Beware heat-treated protein shakes and snacks. The likelihood is that some of the protein listed is actually completely useless to our bodies!
Top tips for getting your protein
- Remember ¼ of your plate should be protein
- Sprinkle on nuts and seeds- a handful of seeds or nuts with your yoghurt, salad or soups
- Eat your protein in combination- particularly important for vegetarians and vegans
- Eat the whole egg- by ditching the yolk, you’re ditching lots of protein!
- Eat high protein snacks throughout the day- avoid high sugar treats in favour of more filling options
- Spread your protein intake out throughout the day evenly at each mealtime
- Variety is the spice of life – plan out how you will eat a variety of different sources throughout the week, to ensure you’re achieving a balance of complete proteins
- If you’re worried about under or over consumption of protein see your healthcare professional
Protein is a macronutrient (along with carbohydrates and fats) and it’s important that we get this element right, as part of a balanced and healthy diet. However, there’s much more to building muscle mass than downing the shakes and hoping for the best! The most important step is to increase your activity levels, including an exercise regime with a solid resistance programme; whether you want to get bigger, get stronger or get leaner.
Do I drink protein shakes, eat bars or take supplements? NO. I achieve my full protein needs through a balanced diet. However, one size does not fit all- it depends on the individual person, your lifestyle and the nature of your workout plan and goals.
I’d love to hear you comments, questions or suggestions about this post! 🙂