Do you think you are getting enough protein in your diet or are you actually getting too much and storing it as fat or making expensive urine? In this article we will explore what protein actually is, how much the recommended daily intake is and reasons you may look to take a protein supplement.
Protein has been a hot topic for years in both the diet and fitness industry as it has been shown to help with weight loss and muscle gain. Protein is a macronutrient, you may have heard of it referred to as “macros” or counted them on popular apps like MyFitnessPal. There are three categories of macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat - I am confident you will have heard of all of these. These macros that we eat provide us with most of the energy we need - so when you count your macros you count up the amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat.
What actually is protein, can you define it? Whether you can or not you can probably associate it with popular diets like the Atkins diet or Keto diet or as a recovery drink after a gym workout in the form of a protein shake. You may have come here for a simple do I need a protein supplement yes or no answer - unfortunately like all things related to the body it isn’t as simple as that and there isn’t a one size fits all answer either. Before we look into why you may need a protein supplement let’s learn more about what protein is before we go into how much we need.
What Is protein?
Protein does deserve the airtime that it has had over the years: it is crucial to our bodies and is in every cell and tissue. Protein is essential to our structure and all of the crucial functions of our bodies. What does protein mean to you? Often protein is associated with muscle growth and the gym but it is responsible for far more and important to stay healthy and work the way it should. More than 10,000 proteins are found in everything from our organs to our hair and the function of enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters. Protein is essential for many functions of the body that we do daily including fueling energy, carrying oxygen throughout the body and helping to make antibodies to fight off infections (1,2,4,5).
As previously mentioned protein is a macro and the property and function comes from a particular sequence of amino acids - these are often referred to as the building blocks of protein (3,5). You may have heard of amino acids back in school science or in supplements such as BCAAs (brand chain amino acids). There are 20 different types of amino acids and they can be caterogised into either essential or non-essential amino acids. An interesting fact is that humans, plants and animals are actually built up of the same 20 amino acids but what’s cool is that there are over one million different types of proteins due to the different sequencing of the 20 amino acids. When we eat protein, for example a mouthful of meat, our body breaks the protein from the piece of meat down into amino acids and these then help with the vital functions of our body including muscle building and immune function (3).
How much protein do I need a day?
Do you know how much protein you need a day? The amount of protein you need actually depends on many factors: your age, activity level, muscle mass, current health status and what your goals are, for example do you want to build muscle for your aesthetics to look more toned? The daily reference intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8g per kilogram of bodyweight (6). Health issues can occur from not enough protein like the breakdown of tissue that can lead to muscle loss; on the other hand too much protein can be stored in the body as excess fat (4).
For a person who is a healthy weight and doesn’t lift weights or exercise much then you should aim for 0.8-1.3 grams per kg of bodyweight: 56-91 grams per day for the average male and 46-75 grams per day for the average female.
For strength and endurance athletes the protein requirements will be adjusted: 1.2-2.0g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. What is important to note though is not just the total intake that needs to be focused on but the quality of the protein being consumed and the timings of the meals consumed, especially pre and post workout (6).
The good news is for most people, if you are a healthy person trying to stay healthy if you are including quality protein sources in most meals you probably don’t need to track your protein (5). A sigh of relief I hear from those who don’t enjoy tracking their foods or macros. When looking at protein supplements, as with all supplements as their name implies it should complete or enhance your current diet, not replace (8). So, let’s look at food first.
Food sources of protein
As a Nutritionist for a healthy person that eats a balanced diet, I would always suggest looking into good quality food sources of nutrients before looking to supplement. Here are some good quality food sources of protein (7):
Milk, cheese and yoghurt
Starting your day with protein rich foods like Greek yoghurt or eggs with high fibre grains like whole wheat toast can help to achieve your daily intake and research shows that it can help you to feel fuller for longer and consequently eat less throughout the day. Consuming your intake of protein throughout the day can be challenging and protein shakes, cereal bars or energy bars can be a convenient way to consume protein - aim to get products that contain at least 6g of protein and are low in sugar and saturated fats (7).
Protein amounts in food examples (g / average serving) (1)
Beef, stewed: 39.3g
Roast Chicken: 27.3g
Baked Beans: 7.0g
Semi-skimmed milk: 6.8g
Yoghurt, low fat: 5.3g
Boiled Rice: 4.7g
Peanut Butter: 4.5g
Wholemeal Bread: 3.4g
Should I drink protein shakes?
A commonly asked question is should I drink protein shakes or do I need protein supplements? I was actually asked this exact question by a close friend and it was the inspiration for this article. My first question back to my friend was why do you feel you need to take them: “to increase my muscle, recovery and up my protein intake” - all valid reasons, let’s explore more.
There are many reasons for people drinking protein shakes including for muscle gain, weight loss and injury recovery (8). Protein shakes provide amino acids, the building blocks of protein we discussed earlier and the protein shakes are in the form of both animal and plant based protein sources.
Popular protein powders:
Animal based protein powders - whey and casein
Plant based protein powders - soy, pea, hemp, rice
Protein shakes do promote muscle gain, prevent muscle loss, improve performance and recovery (so my friend was right in thinking they could benefit) (8). However, so does protein in the form of food sources too, so my next question would be do you need to supplement or are you getting enough protein through your food? For this you would need to track your daily food intake and see if you are eating the right amounts.
In summary, there may be benefits to protein shakes if you don’t have high quality protein sources available for example, you are on the go and cannot make a full meal or if you simply cannot reach your daily protein needs through food alone (8).
Extra reading - if you are looking to increase your plant based protein take a look at a previous popular blog written by my intern Della: How do I get more plant based protein in my diet?
Written by Jade Mottley - Human Nutrition MSc & Sport Science BSc
Lean & Combet, 2017 Barasis’s Human Nutrition: A Health Perspective – Third Edition ISBN 9781444137200