Can we please start this post by appreciating how cute the above picture is? Honestly, my favourite part about writing these posts has got to be finding the best memes to jazz them up! So guys, today I’m sitting down to write the second post in this mini-series – and its time to turn the spotlight onto PROTEIN.
The reason I call protein ‘the celebrity macro-nutrient’ is that in recent times, I think too much emphasis has been placed on protein intake recently, especially across social media, resulting in people prioritising it above their intake of carbohydrates and fats. There are multiple reasons for this, but I think a lot of it stems from a lack of education about two things – where we get protein from, and how much of it we actually need. The rise in popularity of diets like the Paleo diet and other non-specific ‘high-protein, low-carb’ diets in the past couple of decades has resulted in a LOT of misinformation floating around in the public domain. I also think, particularly on Instagram, a lot of regular exercisers see protein-focused diets followed by bodybuilding/aesthetic competitors and think that they need to be eating similarly, when in fact, that sort of personalised nutrition (by definition!) is NOT generalisable, if that makes sense.
SO. Get to the point Ciara, I hear you say! There are FOUR questions I want to answer on a basic level for you guys in this post, which are:
- What IS protein?
- Why do we NEED it?
- Where can we GET it?
- How MUCH do we need?
Time to get started! And before you continue reading, remember my usual disclaimer applies – I’m not a dietitian, nutritionist, or field expert. I’m a doctor, but above all I’m a gal with a passionate interest in nutrition and how it affects our health, and I want this blog to be a helpful platform for sharing basic nutritional info with you guys, to help you make sustainable, healthy choices and changes, and to debunk some of the BS that’s out there!
What IS protein?
Protein is, as you know, one of our key macro-nutrients. Without boring you with the nitty-gritty science (which I love), protein is made up of basic building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids form chains called ‘polypeptides’, and the sequence and shape of these polypeptides is what determines the structure and function of each individual protein.
There are 22 amino acids, and they are broadly divided into sub-groups called ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’. Essential refers to the fact that we MUST get these amino acids from our diet, as our body cannot make them (there are 9 in total). However, as you’d guess, our bodies CAN make the remaining 11 non-essential amino acids. Of these 11, 6 are considered ‘conditionally essential’, which basically means that our bodies can make them most of the time, but we also need to get extra amounts from our diet. The other 5 meanwhile are readily made by the body in all conditions.
Many of you will have heard of amino acids with regard to ‘BCAAs‘, also known as ‘branched-chain amino acids.’ BCAAs have been popularised (in my opinion unneccessarily!) by many supplement brands and strength training circles, which has led to many people thinking they need to jump on this bandwagon and start taking them. There are 3 branched-chain amino acids – leucine, isoleucine and valine – and they account for just over a third of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins. The reason for their popularity is that there is a belief that taking them contributes to muscle synthesis and ‘gains.’ But to be honest guys, anyone with an evidence-base to stand on will tell you that if you eat a consistent varied amount of dietary protein throughout your day, there is absolutely NO need to be spending ridiculous money on BCAAs. I’ve listened to a good few quality podcasts on this topic, and I won’t rant on further than that as personal choice is personal choice at the end of the day. But just remember to always look for the evidence behind anything you try guys!
Why do we NEED protein?
Protein is a serious powerhouse in terms of the many different key roles is plays in our bodies. The main one you need to know about is that protein is crucial for growth and repair of our tissues and cells. Proteins also have key roles as hormones, antibodies and enzymes in our bodies. So there are LOT of ways in which they keep us ticking over nicely.
Suffice it to say that protein is a major building block for our bodies – for healthy growth of bones, muscles, skin, blood, cartilage, for example. Its not just about ‘the gains’ guys!
Where can we GET it?
No guys, the answer is not ‘turkey burgers.’ Well, its not the ONLY answer. Protein sources can be broadly divided into two groups – animal protein, and plant protein. A more scientific way to look at this is to divide protein sources based on their ‘biological value.’ Biological value refers to the proportion of essential amino acids present in the protein source, and how similar this is to how much we need as humans. Proteins can have a high or low biological value.
High biological value protein contains essential amino acids in a high proportion. These proteins are mostly animal proteins (e,g, meat, eggs and dairy). In contrast, low biological value proteins (e.g. plants, beans and legumes) typically have scarcer amounts of essential amino acids, missing at least one within their core structure. Another way some people reference this is to call animal proteins ‘complete proteins’ and plant proteins ‘incomplete proteins’.
However, the key thing to focus on here is that we can COMBINE our plant protein sources to meet our essential amino acid needs, and that this IS feasible with a varied diet. So here’s some examples of both animal and plant protein sources:
- Animal Proteins: Meats, Fish, Poultry, Eggs, Dairy
- Plant Proteins: Beans, Seeds, Gains, Nuts, Lentils, Tofu (and other Soya products), Veggies
How MUCH protein do we need?
I’m going to go VERY basic in answering this question, as its a very personalised area and like I’ve said, I don’t pretend to be an expert. How much protein we need is highly dependent on many important factors – age, gender and activity level in particular. The W.H.O. recommended average daily protein intake is 0.75g/kg body weight (or 0.34g/pound if you know your weight in those units). This figure varies slightly depending on the nutritional body you reference (you may have seen 0.8g/kg quoted elsewhere). If you think about the average 70kg male, that puts his intake at 52.5g of protein per day. If you look below to my examples of grams of protein in common protein sources, you’ll see how this is quite feasible to consume over a typical day.
There is a LOT of BS about how much protein you need, so I’m keeping it simple with three proven facts on this for you. Firstly, it is both proven and advised that if you are a person who exercises regularly, then you do need a greater amount of protein in your diet than someone who doesn’t. There are many different (reputable and not so reputable) sources out there who will quote different g/kg recommendations based on the type of exercise you do, and how frequently you do it, from elite level all the way down to everyday athletes with weight gain, loss or maintenance goals. Typically, strength training athletes eat a lot more protein than endurance athletes, for example. I would put myself in box of ‘mixed endurance/strength athlete’ and so I would say on average I eat 1.5g protein/kg body weight per day, probably a little more. I don’t mind putting that out there – you can see most of my meals on Instagram anyway!
Secondly, what is also proven is that if you include a consistent amount of varied protein with your daily meals and snacks, you should generally have no difficulty meeting your requirement simply with wholefoods alone. And yes, that applies even if you are a person exercising regularly with that slightly higher requirement. It’s a matter of understanding what protein sources there are, and meal planning to ensure you’re eating it regularly. If you’re unsure whether you’re eating enough protein, I would recommend briefly using an app like My Fitness Pal to educate yourself about where your protein is coming from. That’s what I did for 2 months last summer, and I deleted the app after that – intuitive eating is a LOT more fun!
The role of supplementing your protein intake with products like protein powder and protein bars is hotly debated. My own view is that I do use protein powders (both whey and plant-based), usually in the morning after a workout, because I work busy hours and its the easiest way I can get a good source of protein into my morning meal. Aside from this, I make a major effort to use real food throughout the rest of the day to meet my protein needs. Here are some examples of everyday protein sources and how many grams of protein there are per serving:
- 3 ounces of chicken – 25g protein
- 1 egg – 7g protein
- 1 small tin of tuna (100g) – 19g protein
- 60g feta cheese – 10g protein
- 50g cashew nuts – 10g protein
- 1/2 cup kidney beans – 8g protein
Third and lastly, it is well worth finishing by saying that to date NO studies have shown any evidence for over-doing it on your protein intake. Eating more than approximately 2g/kg body weight per day has not yet been shown to have any performance or muscle building benefits. As far as I know there have been studies looking at 2.4g/kg/day but that’s nitty gritty stuff beyond this blog. Taking in more protein than you need does NOT equate to greater ‘muscle gains.’ In fact, the effect is the same as eating anything to excess – you just convert it to fat stores. Like carbohydrates, 1g of protein = 4 calories.
On a personal level, if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’ve always been a plant-based meat-eater, so I eat a combination of animal and plant based protein. I’ve set myself a goal for this year as of this weekend to consistently have TWO ‘meat-free days’ per week where my protein sources will come from fish, eggs or plants. This is because I’ve recently been educating myself a lot about where our protein comes from from an animal welfare and environmental perspective, and that’s why I want to try to make that small change to my diet. I like to share those personal things with you guys because it holds me accountable to them.
And that’s a wrap! I hope you guys found this post helpful! I try to keep this as broad and basic as possible. Simple messages = less BS = sustainable outcomes. As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic. Stay tuned later this week for the third post in this series on fats!
Ciara 🙂 x