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Protein: What you need to know
We all hear about protein in reference to exercise and weight loss… but why does our body really need protein, and how much do we need? In the article below we address the fundamentals on protein – from what it’s role is in within the body, if you can get enough protein without eating meat and whether it is really necessary to consume a protein shake post work-out.
What is protein?
Protein is found throughout the body – in virtually every single place you look. From your cells, to your muscle, skin, bone and hair, protein is there making up vital parts of the tissue. As all cells and tissue are made from protein, you can imagine how essential they are for growth, repair and maintenance of good health. Protein also provides the body with around 10-15% of its dietary energy, with a large amount of this being present in muscle – but also the skin and the blood.
Protein is made up of twenty-plus building blocks called amino acids and these are essentially the building blocks of protein. There around twenty amino acids available in animal and plant based foods and nine of these amino acids must be consumed via the diet. These are often referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids. These are lysine, histidine, threonine, methionine, valine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine and tryptophan. Each of these essential amino acids has vital work to be done within the body and there are many different foods that offer all or some of these essential amino acids. The body itself generates the other amino acids not offered by the diet via a process called transamination. These are therefore referred to as ‘non-essential’ amino acids. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are responsible for building muscle, causing chemical reactions in the body, transporting nutrients, preventing illness and many other functions. You can see how important they are to the functioning of the body!
Protein is also a macronutrient – which means a large amount of it is required in the body to keep everything ticking over nicely. Other macronutrients include fat and carbohydrates. Protein also is extremely important for muscles – which we will explain more below.
What is the role of protein?
So what is protein used for? The question probably should be, what is protein NOT used for? As mentioned briefly before, protein is critical for growth and repair of the body, along with good health. Let’s start with the growth and repair of cells and tissue – which are constantly in regeneration within the body. Protein breaks down in your cells – thus needing more to regenerate, which comes from the essential and non-essential amino acids. Under normal circumstances, your body will break down the same amount of protein that it needs to repair and regrow. Other times, perhaps during illness or pregnancy, the body will break down more protein than it can create, thus increasing your body’s need for more protein. Athletes or those recovering from surgery also require more protein for this very reason.
You may have heard the word enzymes – well, they also depend on protein and they are responsible for the thousands of chemical reactions going on in your body every single day. Enzymes function within and outside of the cell, such as digestive enzymes, which help the body break up sugar, for example. A few examples of where enzymes do their thing include digestion, energy production and muscle contraction.
If that wasn’t enough, amino acids also have the ability to act as messengers between organs, in the form of protein and peptides. Some proteins also provide structure, elasticity and strength. It also helps your body maintain the right pH level in the blood and other bodily fluids. As you can see, protein and it’s building blocks of amino acids are essential for almost every part of the body’s functionality. There are so many answers to the question, what is protein good for? But the next challenge is how to eat and healthy and balanced diet to make sure your body can do everything it needs to be doing.
Recommended amount of protein
The recommended amount of protein will vary over your lifetime and will vary depending on your exercise, your overall health and your age. The British Nutrition Foundation says an average requirement of 0.6g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day is estimated. The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is set at 0.75g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day in adults. This equates to approximately 56g/day and 45g/day for men and women aged 19-50 years respectively. There is an extra requirement for growth in infants and children and for pregnant and breast-feeding women.’
The current average consumption of protein in the UK is 88g for men and 64g for women – which is more than enough to give the body what it needs.
Protein rich foods and plant based protein
So what is the best source of protein? There are many different foods, which offer all the essential amino acids, or a collection of the amino acids.
Meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs are all excellent sources of protein, as they contain all of the essential amino acids. Soy in the form of milk or tofu, also is high in protein. However, it is important to note that you don’t need to consume all essential proteins in one meal (which was previously thought). It is more widely thought now that consuming a range of different protein sources, that together create the essential proteins is just as good for the body – and is of course excellent news if you are a vegetarian or vegan, as many plant based foods only offer part of the essential amino acids, rather than all.
So which are the top foods, animal and plant based, that offer some or all of the essential amino acids?
• Black beans
• Pumpkin seeds
• Nuts (check out the 6 best nuts to eat for your health)
• Whole grains (such as rice, quinao)
• Wheat germ
As you can see, there is a wide range of choice there, and enough to sustain a vegetarian or vegan diet too, if you are savvy about putting your meals together. We’ve suggested a few easy protein meals:
High protein breakfast: Scramble eggs with pumpkin seeds, mushrooms and lean bacon/turkey bacon. For vegan, scrambled tofu with mushrooms and pumpkin seeds.
High protein lunch: Roasted salmon with quinao, tofu and spinach. For a vegan, roasted tofu in paprika and chilli, with quinao and spinach.
High protein dinner: Lean piece of chicken/beef or pork, with brown rice and roasted vegetables. For vegan, roasted butternut squash stuffed with lentils and chickpeas.
High protein snack before bed: Handful of unsalted nuts.
Protein and exercise
It is true – protein is essential for regeneration and repair when we exercise and protein plays a vital role in repairing muscle after we train. It is a common myth that eating a lot of protein after exercise will help build muscle. This is a myth because if you’re not balancing the diet out with carbohydrates, your body will use the protein for energy – hence no super speedy muscle formation!
Having said that, according to the British Dietetics Association, studies do show that eating a 15-25g snack after work out will help your body store glycogen and therefore it may be worth considering a recovery snack post exercise. A snack of this nature could be 1 small can of tuna, 1 small cooked chicken breast or 100g of unsalted nuts or seeds. As you can see, you don’t need to necessarily consume a processed protein shake to get the protein you need! It’s essential to remember that protein intake must be required with sufficient carbohydrate consumption, to give your body the fuel it needs. If you are seeking to reach certain performance goals, it might be a good idea to consult a professional sports nutritionist.
Check out quick and easy ways to get fit this summer.
Protein is absolutely vital to a healthy and happy body, and it’s down to us to make sure we are getting enough of it through the foods we eat. If you love finding out more about other vital nutrients we need – check out: our in-depth look at vitamin D.