Protein: The Essential Guide
Protein has become a hot (but pretty confusing!) topic in recent years. There are certainly many misconceptions about how much we should be eating and what are the best quality sources. But why is it so important and what does it actually do for us?
Nutritional Therapist Eve Kalinik answers all our questions:
What is protein?
Well, to start with, proteins are large complex molecules made from a string of amino acid chains and play an absolutely vital role in the body. Think of them as building blocks that repair, regenerate and regulate the body’s muscles, organs and other tissues. They do a lot more than you might think, with functions ranging from providing antibodies for our immune systems and enzymes for various processes, to creating hormones and acting as chemical messengers - and that's just to name a few.
How much do we need?
There is no definitive amount of protein that we should be consuming on a daily basis. Various factors need to be taken into account when considering how much protein we need including age, sex, life stages (such as pregnancy), weight and physical activity. However, as a general rule, most health experts advocate 0.8g protein per kg of body weight, which equates to roughly 46g per day for an average adult woman and 56g for an average adult male. For athletes or those engaging in a lot of physical activity, closer to 1g protein per kg of body weight is recommended.
The trend towards protein-heavy diets isn't always helpful - or even healthy - as excess protein can put extra burden on the kidneys (that excrete this out of the body), with potential long term implications. Since water is needed to eliminate efficiently, having too much protein can also result in excess fluid loss if not compensating adequately, which can adversely affect fitness performance. On the flip side, not having enough protein can be equally detrimental resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, anaemia, low immunity and wasting of the muscles. If you are on any kind of restricted diet or following a more plant-based diet, it's important to plan out your meals adequately to make sure you are getting your daily quota.
When's the best time to have protein?
It's best to eat some form of protein at every meal and if you eat a snack then always ensure you include some protein in it too. Often clients tell me they are tired and typically it's because they are simply not having enough protein at each meal. Protein is important for satiety levels, keeping you fuller for longer. In most cases, it is also important to balance protein with some form of carbohydrate to keep energy and blood sugar levels as consistent as possible.
When it comes to exercise, depending on the activity, you should be looking to consume some form of protein as soon as possible after finishing your session, ideally within 30 - 60 minutes. There is no real evidence that you need to eat protein before a workout, although in some cases such as weightlifting, where there is a lot of intensive "work" required for the muscles, people find that a small serving beforehand enhances performance. It's really the post-workout feeding of the muscles that you need to be conscious of and protein is essential to help with the recovery and regeneration process.
What are the best sources?
As in everything, variety is key, along with quality over quantity. Where you can, always opt for the organic grass-fed meats that are higher in their nutritional content; wild fish - particularly the oily varieties that are high in omega 3 EFA's - which have a bonus anti-inflammatory effect; free range organic eggs and organic full-fat dairy products also count. You can also get non animal-based proteins from nuts and seeds, legumes and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, butterbeans and pseudo-grains such as quinoa or buckwheat. Generally speaking, these proteins tend to be less bioavailable than the animal based ones which means the absorption and uptake isn’t necessarily as high, but by using some simple techniques such as sprouting and soaking, you can make sure to maximise your nutrients.
And then there are protein supplements such as shakes or protein powders but it's important to be very mindful of the other ingredients included in these products. Brands that I recommend include Sun Warrior or the Super Nutrients range but honestly the best way to get your protein is through food as much as possible. Replacement shakes can serve as an excellent quick and convenient option post gym but try to adjust your exercise routine so you can have a proper meal afterwards instead.
Aduna Moringa powder is 25% protein so adding a teaspoon or two to your drinks or meals can also give your protein levels a lift and being food-state based it is easily absorbed by the body. Plus, with the extra vitamins and minerals you get an extra nutrient boost.
The main focus really is to make sure you have protein throughout the day. Keep it varied. And don’t over or under do it. It’s all about balance after all.
Some protein-packed ideas:
- Smoothies – an ideal way to add in moringa, nut butters, nut milks, fermented dairy such as kefir (2 tbsp peanut butter = 8g protein)
- Dips such as hummus made with chickpeas or butterbeans with raw veggies make for a good snack option (1/4 cup hummus = 4g protein)
- Smoked mackerel salad is a super quick and easy lunch (100g mackerel = 19g)
- Wild salmon fillet with broccoli, chilli flakes and a touch of sesame oil is a perfect supper option (100g salmon = 20g protein)
- Make up a batch of quinoa salad and freeze into portions that you can just pull out and easily take to work (1 cup cooked quinoa = 8g)
- Boiled eggs with some baby spinach leaves are a great breakfast option on the go (2 eggs = 12g protein)
- Homemade burgers (either organic free range meat or lentil/bean based) on Portobello mushroom “buns” and steamed greens is also another delicious protein-packed plate
*Nutritition facts from nutritiondata.self.com