Protein has become a bit of a buzzword in health and fitness, and food manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for increased protein content in processed foods.
But what is protein? How much protein do we need?
Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks for our bodily tissues and a structural component for every cell in our body. Protein is important for both growth and repair. It also makes up most of our muscle, hair, skin, nails, eyes and internal organs. It is used to form collagen which is essential for bones, joints and cartilage. Furthermore, protein is needed to make hormones; such as our gender-specific sex hormones; melatonin to aid our sleep, and thyroid hormones which controls our rate of metabolism.
There are 20 different types of amino acids. Unlike other species, humans are not able to naturally produce all of these, and so must eat certain foods. 8 amino acids are both essential and must be absorbed through digestion – this means maintaining the right diet.
Protein is broken down into energy more slowly than carbohydrates and has been shown to delay stomach emptying, hence making us feel more full for longer. Because it is broken down more slowly, protein can support insulin sensitivity and therefore reduce sugar and carbohydrate cravings. Spreading our protein intake throughout the day, and including it with every meal, gives our bodies a better chance to use these building blocks and ultimately retain muscle mass.
Whilst we are constantly regenerating and replacing worn out cells, certain individuals will need an increased protein intake. Growing children and pregnant women, ill or injured people who must heal; each will place additional needs on their protein reserves.
How much protein do I need?
In the UK, the Reference Nutrient Intake is 0.75g protein per kg of body weight – e.g. for a 75kg male, this would mean a daily intake of 56.25 grams. This is roughly equivalent to about 15% of their daily calories. However, children as well as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers have greater needs, and arguably as we age, we also require more to protect against sarcopenia (muscle wasting). Athletes and frequent exercisers will also have greater needs.
Quality of protein is also important, dependent on the variety of amino acids in the food source, which impacts how biologically available they are for us to use. Combining plant sources such as rice and lentils can help ensure the full range of amino acids are being consumed.
Protein in excess can cause damage, particularly to those with kidney disease. The excess nitrogen causes the kidneys to work harder and get rid of these dangerous toxins.
What is the best source of protein?
Unsurprisingly, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, dairy products, beans and grains provide us with the range of amino acids needed. Whilst vegans can certainly get adequate protein from their diet, most plant sources do not contain the full spectrum of the 20 amino acids utilised by the body.
Therefore, variety and intelligent food combination is required. Vegan protein powders made from pea, hemp, soy, and rice are growing in popularity, also as an alternative to whey based powders for those with dairy intolerances.
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