What does protein do?
Protein is known as a macronutrient, which means that you have to consume large amounts of it in order to survive. But why? What does protein do for your body? As it turns out, rather a lot! Your DNA, blood, bones and hormones all contain protein – in fact protein exists in every cell of your body.
Your body needs protein to function and it can serve a variety of purposes, from repairing tissues to strengthening your bones. Your skin, hair and nails are almost exclusively made of protein and protein is needed to form enzymes and hormones.
Protein can come in many different forms and normally the body breaks protein down into small molecules that are easier to absorb, such as amino acids. Once it is broken down, it is then transported to where it is needed; any excess protein is broken down in the liver to be used as a fuel for metabolism.1
How much protein do you really need?
Recently, there’s been a lot of debate about how much protein you really need, especially if you are active or trying to boost your muscle mass – I’m sure you’ve noticed the rise of protein shakes and energy bars!
The idea that increasing your intake of protein will lead to bulging muscles is a bit of a myth. Your body does need protein to function and if you are exercising, protein may help to repair and support your muscles, but unfortunately glugging back protein shakes will not build your muscle mass. I’m afraid the only way to do that is to spend more time at your gym!
On average, men do require more protein than women, with most guidelines stating that a sedentary man should be getting around 56g a day, with women needing 46g. If you are an active person, this may vary and sometimes a larger intake will be necessary to support your lifestyle.
How much is 56g? To put things into perspective, 25g of protein is equivalent to 4 hard-boiled eggs, 1 cup of lentils, a 3oz chicken breast or 1-2 scoops of protein powder.2
8 healthy sources of protein
Of course what really matters is getting the right source of protein. The way your body can use protein varies from source to source. You may have heard of ‘lean protein’ which simply means that it has a lower fat content.
Ideally, you should be looking for a ‘complete’ source of protein which contains all of the 9 essential amino acids. This may present a problem if you are vegetarian or vegan, as most plant-based sources of protein are not as high in essential amino acids, although there are a few which I shall cover in my favourite sources of protein, listed below.
1 - Chicken
Chicken is an excellent, lean source of protein. It contains all 9 of the essential amino acids as well as other nutrients such as selenium and niacin. However, some forms of chicken can be heavily processed so I would recommend going organic and considering a lean cut such as the breast.
Just 2-4 servings are enough for most adults to achieve their daily recommended allowance of protein. Skinless chicken breasts can very nutritious and easy to incorporate into a wide range of meals. Below I’ve listed a few of my favourite chicken-based recipes to help inspire you!
Lighter Chicken Tacos
Chicken, Avocado & Quinoa Salad
2 – Eggs
Believe it or not, eggs are a surprisingly good source of protein, containing 8 out of 9 of the essential amino acids, as well as vitamins A, B, E & K! Not bad if you’re looking to increase your energy levels and support your muscles.
Of course, many would argue that eggs hardly count as a ‘lean’ source of protein due to their fat content. However, egg whites contain no fat at all and only a small portion of the yolk is saturated fat. All, in all, they’re easy to digest and should remain a staple in your breakfast!
Poached Eggs with Spinach on Wholemeal Toast
Fried Egg in Bell Pepper
3 - Milk
Milk counts as a complete source of protein with one glass of whole milk containing approximately 8g of protein, including all 9 essential amino acids! It’s also high in phosphate and calcium, helping to support bone formation and dental health.
Milk is not without its share of controversy, though, with some claiming that the hormones found in milk can have an effect on an insulin-like hormone known as IGF-1.
This hormone can trigger a whole variety of problems; however, if you moderate your intake and opt for an organic brand you are far more likely to reap the health benefits.
Organic cow’s milk is thought to be lower in saturated fats than non-organic milk and will contain fewer chemicals.
Low Fat Homemade Custard
Béchamel White Sauce
4 – Soy
An excellent source if you are vegan or vegetarian, soy can definitely stand up there with other high-quality sources of protein. It contains all 9 essential amino acids, and is just as versatile as most forms of meat.
Of course the most famous form of soy is tofu and generally the firmer the tofu, the higher the protein content. A 100g serving of tofu should contain around 8.2g of protein as well as vital nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and B1.3
There are also other forms of soy such as tempeh and natto, which are made by fermenting the soy beans. These might be nice to consider as an alternative to tofu just to spice up your routine.
Tasty Tofu Kebabs
Marinated Tofu Stir Fry
5 – Beans & Lentils
Beans and lentils are another vegan-friendly form of protein that is certainly gaining popularity. They’ve undoubtedly earned their reputation, with just one cup of boiled black beans containing a whopping 15g of protein.
Lentils aren’t far behind either, at 11g per cup so both are brilliant alternatives to meat. If you mix either with some rice, you will have a complete form of protein that’s on par with most meat dishes!4
Curried Lentil Potato Casserole
Quinoa & Black Bean Mexican Burgers
6 - Fish
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that fish is naturally high in protein. Oily fish such as salmon or tuna are the best with a 3oz portion of either delivering an incredible 22g of complete protein!
These types of fish also tend to be high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, helping to maintain healthy brain function and bone structure. Of course organic is always best so make sure you go for a high quality cut!
Healthy Fish & Chips with Mushy Peas
Cod with Pesto Topping & Butter Bean
7 – Quinoa
Quinoa has definitely become more mainstream in recent years and that’s undoubtedly a good thing. Quinoa is very high in protein and low in fat which makes it a great option if you’re trying to lose weight or watching your fat intake.
It’s estimated that 1 cup of cooked quinoa contains around 8.14g of protein, placing it on the same level as milk and tofu.5 Not only is quinoa a great, complete source of protein, though, it’s also chockfull of other nutrients, such as fibre, calcium, potassium and zinc.
Quinoa Stuffed Avocados
8 – Buckwheat
Buckwheat is an excellent vegan-friendly source in terms of its overall benefits for your health. It’s been linked to lowering the risk of high cholesterol and is rich in flavonoids such as rutin. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that buckwheat also has a respectable content of protein, with one cup of cooked buckwheat containing around 5.7g.6
This might not sound like a lot but what sets Buckwheat apart is that it contains all 9 essential amino acids in large amounts. However, this protein can be difficult to digest so it may still be worth pairing buckwheat with another protein mentioned on this list.
Buckwheat & Banana Pancakes
Gluten-free Buckwheat & Mushroom Risotto