The Importance of Protein
In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the importance of protein. Food marketers are now using protein as the ‘poster boy’ of their products, and take a look at the supermarket shelves and you’ll see anything from cereal, to chocolate bars, to yogurts bragging about their high protein content.
But why does protein now have this elevated prevalence? Is it such a big deal, or is it just the new “low fat” or “low carb”? How much do we need, and where can we get it from?
It’s fairly well publicised that protein is a staple component of a bodybuilder’s diet, playing a crucial role in the muscle building process. But what about the rest of us? Does it matter if we consume foods high in protein from an overall health and wellbeing perspective?
Protein is one of the four macronutrients alongside carbohydrate, fat and alcohol. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories.
In terms of the amount we should consume, the general population is advised to consume 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, however more recent research indicates that whilst this is a minimum level to avoid ill health it’s not an optimal intake. Those who are involved in regular strength training and looking to build/maintain muscle levels are recommended to consume a much higher 1.8 – 2.7g/kg.bw, and this same intake is also recommended to those who have weight loss as a goal. Any endurance athletes will benefit from consuming 1.2-.1.7g/kg.bw. From an overall, general health perspective, Phillips et al. (2016) stated that we should all be aiming to consume at least 1.2 – 1.6g/kg.bw.
Proteins contain amino acids, which are the crucial building blocks for tissues in the body (including muscle). Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, and it’s the nitrogen balance in the body that determines whether we are in a tissue building (positive balance) or tissue loss (negative balance) state.
There are 11 non-essential amino acids which are synthesised in the body, and 9 essential amino acids that must be sourced via the diet. Complete proteins (meat, dairy sources, soya and quinoa) contain all essential amino acids, whilst incomplete proteins (usually plant-based foods such as beans, pulses and grains) don’t contain all essential amino acids. As such, it’s very important that vegetarians consume a combination of protein sources to ensure that they get the full amino acid spectrum.
Protein brings with it a host of important health benefits, including:
- Protein is crucial for healthy hair and skin;
- Protein supports weight loss as it provides increased satiety (fullness) thus reducing overall calorie consumption, and has a higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) than other macronutrients which means that more energy is expended during the digestive process;
- Protein augments the response to resistance training which, when dieting, supports muscle retention (generally, we want to lose fat, not muscle!).
Benefits to the Elderly
Frailty in the elderly is a key contributor to declining health, and so it’s important that we consider nutritional interventions that can slow this decline.
Muscles in elderly individuals are resistant to what would normally be anabolic (tissue building) stimuli, and is less sensitive to smaller doses of amino acids than in younger people so may benefit from higher doses of protein throughout the day to counteract this. By increasing the amount of protein in each meal they will hit what is known as the leucine threshold, which is a key point to reach to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This, combined with regular resistance training, can help to reduce the rate of muscle tissue loss.
Here are my top recommendations when it comes to protein:
- Consume protein at every meal
- Aim for around 25 – 30g protein per serving
- Consume at least 1.2g/kg bodyweight protein per day
- Consume protein approximately every 3-4 hours
- Consume a varied diet, including meat, dairy, eggs, beans, pulses, legumes, nuts and other protein sources
- If you are a vegetarian, learn more about the amino acid profile of the foods you eat and ensure that you are eating as wide a variety of protein containing foods as possible (pay particular attention to the leucine content)
What about supplementation?
Protein supplements (e.g. whey protein) are hugely popular especially amongst gym-goers. Whey specifically could in fact be classed as a food, as it’s simply a by-product of the cheese-making process. If when tracking your nutrition you find that your protein intake is on the low side, I’d recommend that you consider using a whey protein supplement to help you hit your target. But, always prioritise food first, and use supplements to fill the gaps.
Written by @chris_the_nutritionist