PROTEIN: HOW MUCH DO WE REALLY NEED?

What is a protein?

Protein is a macronutrient that is made up of one or more chains of amino acids, building blocks that can be found in the body and taken in through our diets. It is a vital part of our diets. Amino acids that are found in the body are known as non-essential amino acids, and ones that have to be obtained through our diet are known as essential amino acids. The two main sources of protein are animal-based proteins and plant-based proteins. Some examples of animal proteins are egg, beef, turkey, and whey, which is found in dairy products. Examples of plant proteins would be nuts, peas, soy and lentils.

Why are proteins important for our body?

Proteins are broken down by the body into amino acids and used to build and repair our muscles. They can also be used as an energy source, to make enzymes and hormones, and to create antibodies to help fight off infections. 

Ensuring an adequate protein intake to meet our requirements is important. Whilst protein deficiency is rare in the general population in the UK, studies show that less than 50% of older adults between 65 and 89 years old meet UK protein recommendations [1]. The current recommendation for protein intake in the UK is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. This is around 45g of protein for the average woman and 55g for the average man. Protein supplements are often promoted as a way to increase our protein intake, however, it is more than possible to meet protein requirements without the use of protein supplements. Additionally, most supplements do not contain other important nutrients that we obtain from balanced meals.

How can I include protein foods in my diet?

The NHS Eatwell Guide [2] suggests eating some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins as part of a balanced diet. It notes that we should aim to eat at least two portions of fish per week, with one of the portions being an oily fish. Additionally, it recommends that the consumption of red and processed meats, such as bacon, sausages, and cured meats, should be limited.

If you don’t eat meat, and stick to plant protein sources, it may be beneficial to take some steps to ensure that you are getting enough protein. Plant-based proteins are often referred to as incomplete proteins as they do not contain all of the essential amino acids needed by our bodies, whereas animal-based proteins are known as complete proteins as they do. To combat this, it is suggested that non-meat eaters should aim to eat a range of different types of plant proteins. This is because when we eat two or more incomplete proteins, this creates a complementary protein which can help vegetarians to get all of the amino acids that they need. For example, lentils can be eaten with grains, like rice, and peanut butter can be eaten with wholemeal bread, to create a complete protein.

Another consideration that should be taken surrounding how much protein to eat is age. As we get older our muscles tend to decrease in mass and function at an increased rate. This is known as sarcopenia. However, studies have shown that if we increase how much protein we eat as we age that sarcopenia can be slowed down or prevented [3]. 

Top Tips for Protein

  1. Include a high protein food in each meal
  2. If you don’t eat meat, make sure you are consuming a variety of protein sources
  3. Incorporate high protein snacks into your diet, like nuts and cheese
  4. Try switching to leaner, unprocessed meats
  5. Switch to wholegrains which contain more protein than their refined alternatives

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32059533/ 

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/

[3] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/5/1562S/4650430?login=true 

Article written by Libby Grimshaw (Nutrition Intern) and reviewed by Caroline Hill Freelance Dietitian

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