Protein is one of the macro nutrients that we obtain from the food we eat (the other macros are carbohydrates, fat, fibre and water).
Protein accounts for around 17% of the body weight of a normal weight person. The largest component of our body is water, at 60% of total weight.
Functions of protein
Protein has many functions as shown in the diagram below. Some of the main ones include:
- Builds tissue - muscles, bones, ligaments, blood
- Makes many of the hormones (eg insulin) and enzymes (eg digestive enzymes) that keep our bodies functioning
- Boosts our immune system - protein makes the antibodies that we need to fight infections
- Transports vital substances around the body - nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, hormones, enzymes
- Helps with weight control, and the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure (more on these three below)
How much protein do we need ?
Our body does not store protein, therefore regular dietary intake is crucial.
Our needs vary according to our age, health condition and physical activity.
- The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein in the UK is set at around 0.75-0.8g per kg of body weight for adults. Thus if you weigh 80 kg, you should be consuming approximately 65 gm of protein per day. A person who weighs 95 kg should consume around 75 gm of protein daily, and so on.
- The recommended daily level is higher for people who exercise regularly. The British Nutrition Foundation recommends levels of 1.3g / kg body weight for individuals engaged in moderate physical exercise and 1.6g / kg of body weight for those who do intense exercise. Thus if you weigh 85 kg and engage in a moderate level of physical activity, then you should aim to eat approximately 110 gm of protein per day.
What are the main food sources of protein ?
Protein is found in a wide variety of foods, which makes it easier to achieve the daily levels via a varied and balanced diet.
Protein has always been primarily associated with food that comes from animal sources (ie meat, dairy, eggs). However, there are also many plant-based protein sources - some of the main ones being beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts. So if you are vegetarian there are many sources of protein available to ensure that you reach your recommended daily intake.
Some of the main food sources of protein are listed below
It’s not just a case of eating enough protein per se. There is a big difference between high quality, healthy protein (eg. all the items in the table above) and low quality protein (eg. processed meat; fast food such as hamburgers, fried chicken, etc). High quality protein contains all the essential amino acids to perform the key functions mentioned earlier; unhealthy protein does not.
Good quality protein can help reduce weight, control blood sugar, and reduce blood pressure
Weight control: this benefit is a bit surprising as protein is associated with increasing muscle mass which leads to weight gain, not weight loss. However the weight gained is from lean muscle (‘good weight’), rather than from fat (‘bad weight’).
Protein leads to fat reduction in several ways:
- It is thermogenic which means it burns fat. So it’s important to include adequate protein with every meal to burn the fat you also eat.
- It is satiating, which means it makes you feel full - so less need to fill up on other, fattening foods as part of your meal.
- It is processed by your body more slowly than carbs and fats so you stay full for longer - thus less need for fattening snacks between meals.
Blood sugar regulation: protein stabilises the metabolism of blood glucose and thus improves your insulin sensitivity. This is crucial for good blood sugar control.
Moreover, the satiating feature of protein means less need for snacking. Frequent snacking causes glucose spikes in your bloodstream which leads to your cells becoming insulin resistant. Poor blood sugar control and insulin resistance can ultimately lead to type 2 diabetes.
Blood pressure control: protein ensures good fluid balance between the blood and tissue in your body, which in turn helps maintain healthy blood pressure
Protein at breakfast
Eating sufficient protein is particularly important at breakfast, to ensure that your body gets a good start to the day. Unfortunately, it’s at breakfast that protein consumption is most likely to fall short. The typical western breakfast of cereals and toast washed down with a cup of tea contains barely any protein at all !
Instead try to include foods like eggs (excellent source of protein), beans, plain yoghurt, nuts, pumpkin seeds in your breakfast diet……..you’ll notice a number of health benefits !!
Ready to find out more?
If you would like to discuss any of this further, book a free 20-minute telephone consultation with me. There is no obligation - just a chat about your health priorities and how I might be able to help