Protein – why so popular?

Do we really need to up our protein intake?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


21 December 2018

Protein shakes have really taken off in recent years and possibly for this reason, this particular macronutrient has become more popular and top of mind. 

Protein is one of the four major macronutrients in our diet and is used for a number of important functions in our bodies. Here are some of the key reasons why we need sufficient protein:

Building and maintaining muscle mass 

In the bodybuilding world it’s certainly well recognised that we need sufficient protein to build muscle mass. However, it’s a common misconception that sufficient protein will instantly cause you to develop huge muscles! This isn’t the case and much of this is down to how you train. Protein is an essential building block for our muscles and when we damage our muscle fibres we need sufficient protein to repair them and build them stronger. 

However, protein is also essential as we get older. As we age, our lean mass, or muscle content gradually diminishes. Having a good protein content can help to slow this process and keep us feeling strong and able-bodied.

Weight loss 

Come January weight loss is often a common theme and many will use protein to help them achieve their goals. As with any diet, when it comes to the macronutrients we consume we need to think logically; by increasing our intake of one macronutrient, such as protein, you’ll be reducing your proportion of other macronutrients such as carbohydrates and sugar. And this way, you may be more likely to shed some weight. 

Having a leaner body mass (more muscle) also has favourable effects on our metabolism, as muscle is more metabolically active than fat.

Help you to feel fuller for longer 

Satiety (or the ability to feel full) often goes hand in hand with weight loss too, so this is another reason that protein could have an important part to play in your weight loss regime. Research has shown it may help to keep us fuller for longer1 and this may have something to do with the impact it can have on blood sugar regulation. 

See, a good proportion of protein with each meal and snack helps slow the release of sugars into our blood stream which can help to keep us fuller for longer and help protect against wobbly blood sugar levels and problem cravings. 

Repair and recovery 

Protein is the building blocks of our muscles, but actually, it’s responsible for repair and recovery processes all over our bodies. From physical processes such as skin healing or maintaining hair growth, to chemical processes which involve hormones or enzymes (many of which occur during the night and allow us to wake up feeling refreshed) we require sufficient protein to allow these to happen. 

Alternative diets 

With Veganuary becoming a popular trend and often resulting in new-found healthier habits  sticking around even longer that the initial month, it’s important for those following a vegan or vegetarian regime to keep protein top of mind. 

A number of sources of complete proteins (meaning they have a good proportion of all 9 of the essential amino acids) are found in animal-based products or eggs, but that’s not to say you can’t meet all your protein needs through plant-based sources! It may just take a little more time and attention – fresh foods and planning are the key! 

Are there any potential negative effects to be aware of?

Digestive turmoil 

If we significantly ramp up our protein intake we need to consider the ramifications this can have on our digestive tract! 

Protein takes more effort to break down, therefore, it can cause delayed gastric emptying – ever find you feel sick or bloated after a big protein hit? This could be why! 

Interestingly, longer-term, excess protein can also throw off the balance of bacteria in your gut1 which can cause a whole host of problems such as bloating or flatulence. Bad breath can also be linked to digestive pressure and too much protein versus healthy fats or complex carbohydrates.

Kidney chaos

Your kidneys are intricate organs involved in the metabolism of protein and clearing some of the unwanted by-products from your system. If you increase your protein intake substantially, you could risk putting your kidneys under pressure which means that other problems such as gout are more likely to crop up.

All the added extras 

It’s really important to carefully consider how you want to go about increasing your protein intake. If you want to try and include more oily fish or almonds in your diet then this is fantastic, however, if instead you’re opting for copious amounts of protein shakes or processed foods labelled ‘high protein’ then you might want to consider what added extras are in there! 

This could include lots of added sugars, sweeteners, fats or other lesser-known nasties, which won’t exactly support your latest ‘healthy eating’ or ‘clean-eating’ regime.

Not enough of the natural extras! 

If your focus is on the wrong type of protein (more processed rather than naturally occurring) then you could also be missing out on a number of other important nutrients. 

Especially in plant-based sources of protein, the protein often exists in combination with a nice variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. However, if you’re opting for more processed varieties instead, the nutrient content could nose dive quite considerably.

What’s the best approach?

1 – Easy does it 

As with most of my advice, I don’t generally believe in any extreme measures or fad diets and this is also the case when it comes to protein. 

Sure, keep tabs on it and try and ensure you’ve got a good source of protein in every meal and snack. But extremes often aren’t the way to go, it’s better to make gradual changes to your diet and lifestyle which means they’re more sustainable in the long-term. If you want to get technical (at least initially until you’re used to what a daily diet including more protein looks like) you can aim to include 0.75g of protein for every kg of body weight, that’s about 50-100g of protein daily for the average person.

2 – Food sources are best

Whilst it can be tempting to get sucked in to the hype created at your local gym, ironically, fresh foods aren’t often on the agenda and if they are, the variety may be somewhat limited. 

My advice when it comes to protein is to focus on whole foods. Lean, organic meat, fish, seafood and eggs are good sources for meat-eaters and some top plant-based sources include beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds which everyone should aim to include. You don’t necessarily need to scrimp on the cards either, as some good quality carbohydrate sources also have a decent protein content in them, including brown rice, millet or quinoa – bonus! 

It really can be easily incorporated into a diet without having to worry about compromising variety and if you feel you need that little bit extra, add an extra scoop of good quality, plant-based protein powder into a wholefood smoothie. That way it’s an extra, rather than compromising on other areas of your diet!

3 – Micronutrients as well as macronutrients 

Whilst it’s easy to get obsessed over the content of our macronutrients – that’s carbs, fat and protein - it’s important not to forget about the other nutrients that we get from foods; micronutrients. 

Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals and by getting a good variety of different foods, we can help ensure we get the best variety of these nutrients too – which, by the way, are super important for supporting our metabolism and weight management processes anyway – bonus! From the zinc in fish, to the iodine in dairy and magnesium in green veg, it’s important to fuel ourselves with more than just protein! 

However, whilst you’re changing up your routine, it’s not wrong to assume that you might need a little extra support, and you can do just that with some Balance Mineral Drink! Combining magnesium, zinc, potassium, calcium and vitamin D, it’s perfect for supporting you at any time of year, but especially when we’re lacking in some sunlight, changing up our diet or hitting the gym that little bit harder! Good luck!

 

1. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/5/1558S/4650426

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28903954

 

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