Protein is a widely discussed topic in nutrition. Luckily, it has been the topic of interest in research in the last few years highlighting some really interesting new developments that we can utilise to improve our health.
First things first, what is protein?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, alongside carbohydrate and fat. These are all incredibly important and play different roles in the body - we need all three, but not in the same amounts.
Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein and the building blocks of our tissue. Our entire body is made up of amino acids chained together to make protein.
There are two types of amino acids:
- Essential amino acids
Our bodies do not produce these, we have to consume essential amino acids.
- Non-essential amino acids
Our bodies produce these, therefore it's less important we consume these.
The non-essential amino acids, despite the name, are usually the most important. Our bodies have a way to make the amino acids that are most necessary for function over the ones we must consume as a mechanism of survival. However, it's usually the case is that our bodies make enough for baseline function, not for optimal function.
Signs of protein deficiency
If you are eating too little protein you might be experiencing the following:
- Muscle wasting
- Muscle pain & fatigue after exercise
- Lack of muscle tone or development
- Brain fog and lowered cognitive function
- Sugar cravings
- Constant hunger
- Weak skin, hair and nails
- Slow wound healing
- Impaired immunity
- Vulnerable to bone fractures
How much protein should I eat?
The RDI (recommended daily intake) in New Zealand for men between 19-70 years is 64 grams and for women between 19-70 it is 46 grams. That's roughly around 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight.
Before you take that on board, let me tell you that this is way too low! This will keep you alive, there is no way your health will thrive off this little protein.
The metric you want to go by is 1.6grams of protein per kilo of body weight, per day. So, if you are 70 kg, you need to be consuming 112 grams of protein per day, regardless of your gender - that’s around double what the RDI says…
To find out how much protein you're consuming I suggest doing a 3-day food diary and putting the data into My Fitness Pal or something similar. This will give you a rough estimate of your protein consumption. You may be shocked! I know I was when I started to pay attention to my protein intake.
Can I overdo protein?
Yes, like absolutely anything in nutrition, there is a threshold. For protein, the issue is that excess protein will cause an extra stress on your kidneys because they are responsible for excretion of waste products, mainly nitrogen coming from excess protein in the body.
However, this only becomes a factor if you are consuming around 3-4 kg of protein per kilo of body weight - which is a massive amount of protein! That’s kilograms not grams.
Exercise and protein
If you are very active and engage with daily exercise, especially heavy weight training or endurance activities, your need for protein will increase.
But it isn’t the case that if you are not active, that your need for protein reduces. This is a really common misconception.
Muscle function, tone and recovery is a big part of protein's role, but it isn’t the whole role - it only scratches the surface in fact! Protein plays a role in every single process and cell in your body. Therefore, eating protein will affect your overall health greatly whether you’re active or not.
Animal sources and plant based sources of protein are not made equal! We must consider the bioavailability of the protein sources - meaning how well our bodies digest and utilise the nutrition.
Animal sources of protein are far superior in terms of bioavailability than plant based sources. A very rough rule of thumb is that if you are eating only plant-based protein you are getting about ½ the grams of protein that you read on the back of the packet. Meaning, if you have a pea-protein powder with 25 grams of protein per scoop, your body can’t absorb that whole 25 grams, you may be getting far less than that!
If you are not restricted by a vegetarian or vegan diet then I recommend getting most of your protein from animal sources and include plant based protein only as variety.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, I would recommend doing a deep dive on your protein sources and make sure you are consuming enough on a daily basis. My suspicion is that you may not be, because trust me, it's incredibly challenging!
When to consume protein
The best time of day to consume protein is strongly debated. My suggestion is always that you want to identify your 2 most reliable meals. Meaning, we all have meals we do better than others; for example, I’m a lunch and dinner person; some clients I see know that they can get a good breakfast and dinner in, but due to work, lunch is a write off. So, go with what suits you - just make sure that in two meals of the day, you’re getting over 40 grams of protein in each.
And, as if that’s not too much, there’s another layer of complexity….
Your body doesn't like to absorb drip-fed amounts of protein. Your protein absorption turns on fully when you have consumed a large amount of protein. Therefore, if you are relying on having many protein-rich snacks throughout the day - 5-10 grams here and there - you may not be absorbing all that much.
What is best is to pack two of your meals a day chock-a-block full of protein. Simple.