Protein is one of the three fundamental macro-nutrients necessary for good health. The word protein originates from the Greek word protos, meaning “first”, which highlights the important role it plays in the body. Most people think of protein as “that thing you need to grow your man-guns” (or lady-guns!). However, protein is not only necessary for great muscles.

Every cell in your body (yes, all 70 trillion of them), requires protein for fuel (energy) and for growth and repair. Your bones, hair, antibodies (products of immune cells), enzymes (the chemistry set of your body), your blood and every other part you can think of requires protein. And, your protein requirements are especially high during periods of rapid growth e.g. during childhood and adolescence, pregnancy and after illness or surgery. Protein also plays an important role in promoting satiety and fullness (i.e. telling your brain when you’re full and your mouth when to shut!).

Many of us know protein is important- but very few people know what the best sources are or how much we should be eating. And many don’t realise that protein doesn’t always come shaped like a piece of cow. Let’s explore the ins and outs of this exciting and delicious macro-nutrient.

Good Sources of Protein

Protein is found in both animal and plant based products such as:
– Lean Meat (e.g. beef, lamb, pork, kangaroo, veal)
– Fish
– Skinless chicken and turkey
– Free range eggs
– Nuts & seeds
– Legumes e.g. dried beans and lentils
– Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt
– Soy products
– Tofu
– Protein powders

It is important to choose protein rich foods that are lower in saturated fat (e.g. skinless chicken, lean mince). Moderating your intake of red meat is also important, to not more than 500 g of cooked red meat (700 g if you are measuring it raw) per week, as a meta-analysis of 12 separate studies indicated that for every 100 g per day of increased red meat intake, there is also a 17% increase in bowel cancer risk. When it comes to processed meat (salami, bacon etc.) there is NO safe level of intake with a meta-analysis of 13 studies finding an 18% increase in bowel cancer risk for every 50-gram increase in daily intake. Bacon lovers, around the world, can now be heard groaning, sadly. A 2015 study found that higher consumption of red meat was associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer, mortality.

Protein & Weight loss

Most of us have heard of a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, who has lost a lot of weight following a high protein/low carbohydrate diet, such as the paleo diet, Atkins diet or Dukan diet. High protein diets can be effective for weight loss, as the body produces less insulin (fat storage hormone), and when insulin levels are low, the body burns more fat. Protein also has a greater satiety than carbohydrates, making people feel fuller more quickly, and for longer period of time, therefore making them better able to control their appetite. However, high protein diets need to be carefully planned as they can also be high in saturated fat, and restrict health protecting plant foods such as whole-grains and vegetables, and lead to unbalanced meal plans with significant nutrient gaps. It’s important to remember that nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all thing, and each individual is different! One type of eating may suit one person, and work wonders, and lead to deficiencies and dysfunction, in another person.

Recommended protein intake

We derive energy (often known as calories) from the foods and fluids we consume, protein included. Many people are surprised to learn that excessive calories from protein are not converted directly into mighty man/woman-guns. Any excess of energy from protein (just like every other macro-nutrient in our diet- carbohydrates, fats, or alcohol), will be stored as fat. As a general rule of thumb, most Australians consume enough protein.

Inactive males & females: 0.8-1.0g per kg of bodyweight per day

This recommended dietary intake is designed to maintain nitrogen balance in the body for the average adult, as negative nitrogen balance will lead to muscle being broken down to energy. Maintaining and building muscle is essential for having a healthy metabolism and maintaining a healthy weight.

Endurance athletes: 1.2-1.7g per kg of bodyweight per day

Strength & power athletes: 1.2 to 2g per kg of bodyweight per day

Recreational athletes/gym junkies: 1.1-1.4g per kg of bodyweight per day

It is well accepted now that athletes require more protein than sedentary people. However, this will vary depending on the type of sport or exercise, current body weight, exercise intensity, age, recommended energy intake, and training goals (e.g. weight loss or muscle gain). It is also vital to remember that building muscle is more than getting enough protein; carbohydrate is the preferred muscle fuel, and is essential for replenishing muscle glycogen (fuel) stores.

Are you getting the right amount of protein? If you are unsure, come in for a consultation with our Accredited Practicing Dietitian/Sports Nutritionist.


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