What’s the Point of Protein?
For many of my clients, the word ‘protein’ conjures up scary images – of Arnie, Sly or Mr T and their bulging muscles – or unleashes secret fears that they’ll have to sign up for daily sessions at the gym. However, once they realise the full potential of eating enough protein – of how it can improve their skin, weight, sleep patterns, energy levels, blood pressure, and mood – they always want to hear more. For some it can be as easy as replacing toast and jam with toast and ham in the morning. Others love the convenience of a protein shake. Needless to say, it shouldn’t be a chore to get enough good-quality protein in your diet. But how much do you really need? What are the best sources of protein in your diet? Why do vegans, vegetarians and some meat eaters struggle to meet their daily protein needs? More importantly, what should you eat if you’re feeling run down, exhausted, and ready to snap? The real story behind protein, and how to get enough, starts with the amino-acid pool. Let’s jump in.
(If you only have 2 minutes head down to the handy BITE SIZED BLOG).
The power of protein…
You probably know that protein is needed to rebuild muscle fibres after a heavy exercise session, but did you know that dietary proteins are needed to help you maintain a healthy weight, keep your immune system in peak condition, send signals from one cell to the next, add strength to your skin, hair and connective tissue, help lull you to sleep, and even regulate your blood pressure? It’s true. Eating adequate amounts of protein – from either animal or plant sources – brings much more to the table than mere muscle power. Shape, weight, defence, communication, beauty, relaxation and health – there’s more to protein than meets the eye.
A daily dip…
When it comes to this versatility, it’s all about amino acids. These tiny building blocks are continually disassembled and reassembled to form the huge variety of protein-rich structures found throughout the body. Each time you eat and digest larger proteins you top up your supply of amino acids. As a dynamic being, you constantly dip into this amino acid pool, selecting the desired components so the right protein can be put together at the right time. It’s similar to having a bag of Lego and selecting specific bricks to create a structure; you can always break it apart, put the pieces back, and start creating anew. It’s even more impressive when you consider that following the instructions from 20,000 of our genes, you have the ability to generate 2 million different types of proteins, all from a pool of 22 amino acids.
The essential nine…
That’s right – you only have 22 amino acids to play with. For adults, 9 of them are really quite special. These are the 9 essential amino acids that are only present in the foods you eat, and can’t be made from scratch in your body. That’s why humans have to eat protein. (Incidentally, they’re called histidine, leucine, lysine, isoleucine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, valine, phenylalanine. I learned a little riddle to help me remember them when I was studying, but luckily you don’t have to. Just be aware that it’s important that each of them is present in adequate amounts, since a shortage of one can have a knock-on effect and actually limit the production of a particular protein.) To achieve a healthy balance I think it’s better to eat different types of foods for your protein sources. Poultry, eggs, fish, dairy, beans, nuts, meat and grains all contribute protein. Variety is key, particularly if you’re vegetarian or vegan. In fact, variety is essential for optimal health.
Does this sound like you?…
Perhaps you’ve decided to eat less meat and more plants. Or you can’t seem to sleep through the night. Or you catch a cold if someone sneezes within a 1 mile radius. If this sounds all too familiar, then adjusting your protein intake could bring huge benefits. So what exactly do you need to do, and what sorts of foods should you eat, to keep your amino acid pool functionally full?
First thing you should know is that:
Variety IS the spice of life…
You need variety simply because protein-rich foods are not all created equal. Proteins from animal sources (think poultry, eggs, dairy, fish and meat) are known as complete proteins. This means that they supply all 9 of the essential amino acids, and that they provide each of them in sufficient amounts. On the other hand, proteins from plant sources are not complete proteins. Such incomplete proteins don’t have sufficient amounts of all of the essential amino acids. This means that you can’t rely on beans, or nuts, or grains to meet your protein requirements. (There are a few exceptions – I’ll tell you about these later).
It takes two to tango…
Fortunately, there’s a way round this. It’s actually very easy. All you need to do is combine a couple of foods. This is where those cooking for vegetarians and vegans should sit up and pay attention.
Let’s take rice and beans as an example.
Although we often think of rice as a carbohydrate, a starchy food, it does have protein – around 8%. While you can get all 9 of the essential amino acids, rice doesn’t have much lysine; this is the limiting amino acid. Beans on the other hand are about 21% protein, but they are a poor source of methionine. This is the limiting amino acid in pulses. If you completely excluded either of these foods and only ate rice, or beans, then pretty soon your amino acid pool would be running low on either lysine or methionine. Bad news really, since lysine plays a role in colour vision, and is an integral part of collagen (the protein that keeps wrinkles at bay). Methionine is needed for the growth of new blood vessels.
But what happens when you eat the two together? AMINO ACID ALCHEMY! Eat rice and beans at the same meal, or within a 24 hour period, and it’s the same as eating a complete protein. It’s pretty clever really. You’ve taken 2 types of plant protein, overcome their individual short-comings, and created a meal that meets your amino acid needs. Foods like this are known as complementary proteins. Eat them and you’re guaranteed to get all nine of the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities.
It’s a similar story with vegetables, nuts and seeds, where lysine and isoleucine are the limiting amino acids. If you want to make complete proteins, then you have to get creative with your combinations when you eat these foods. Feta cheese and sweet potato toast? Greek yogurt with spiced nuts? Vegetable and noodle stir-fry with sesame ponzu dressing? Macaroni cheese? Any of these complementary foods will fit the bill and deliver complete proteins.
A balanced approach…
So, protein is needed for skin, hair, muscles, cell communication, mood, energy, and more. Does this mean the more protein you eat, the better your health? Of course not! In the long term, eating too much protein increases the risks of osteoporosis, is associated with cardiovascular disease, and isn’t great for those with kidney issues (anyone with type 2 diabetes is on the list). You certainly want plenty of variety, but you definitely need balance.
For the average woman, the daily protein requirement is around 46 grams. For the average sedentary man it’s a little more, around 56 grams per day. You can easily work out your daily protein needs by multiplying your weight in kgs by 0.8, or your weight in pounds by 0.36.
Have you just thought about reaching for your calculator? Then this is the perfect place to stop.
your special bonus
Before you use the calculation above, and head off to figure out your recommended amount of protein to eat each day, do you remember I promised to share some extra information? Yep, it’s bonus time! I’ve put together a really useful PROTEIN POWER resource, for you to download and keep. It shows you what 50g of protein looks like in the real world, includes my nutritional insights on 7 of the best proteins, and has 2 tasty recipes so you can easily get some healthy complete proteins on your plate.
If you’ve already joined the Nutrition with Nina community, you’ll have received the link in the April edition of Word from the HealthHub. For those of you who haven’t entered yet, simply head to the Home page and leave your details to receive this informative resource and a regular monthly e-blast of recipes, news and other tasty things.
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like to skim? only have 2 minutes?
I’ve covered the essentials in a BITE SIZED BLOG
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over to you
Do you ever worry that you eat way too much meat?
I really love hearing of your health hopes and plans. Especially when you offer to share your personal experience with others in the Nutrition with Nina community. It certainly helps to know you don’t have to struggle with uncertainty and confusion on your own. So thanks for taking the time to add your comments below.
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Until next time,