Protein is the one nutrient that we all know our bodies need (one of three macronutrients) and we all have our own ideas about the best sources of protein, where it originates and why we need it. Most of us also know that we need it to not only help our bodies repair themselves but as a way to make them stronger.
In the last 15 years, we have been led to believe that by having higher portions of protein throughout the day (usually meat) in the place of our daily intake of carbs, our bodies are much healthier. Yet, despite the confusion centred on dietary advice, we also know that balance is usually key, so why have we been sold this idea and are high protein diets really good for us?
To answer these questions, let us look briefly at what protein is, why we need it, and where the best sources actually come from.
At a glance and from a scientific perspective, a protein is a structure made up of polymers or, to be more accurate, polypeptides, which are produced from amino acids, apparently called the monomers of the polymer. Confused yet?
If you have some time, Professor Dave sums it up the structure and function of branched chain amino acids plus more in this 10-minute video:
Ultimately, a protein is an organic substance made up of a mixture of essential amino acids, compounds and carbon, with a sprinkle of nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. It sometimes contains sulphur.
There are twenty different amino acids that produce a protein but the body only produces nine of them. Therefore, our intake of protein through food is highly important and probably the reason why it has become the most debated and discussed nutrient in our diets, fad or otherwise.
It is important to follow protein requirements because this means our bodies have an accurate absorption rate, helping to maintain a healthy metabolism and body weight.
The recommended daily amount is different for men and women as the general calorie intake is higher for men. The average woman needs around 46 grams of protein per day and a man needs 56 grams per day.
The amount of protein we need, of course, depends on our body type and the amount of activity we do each day. Athletes and gym enthusiasts, for example, might need a slightly higher, daily intake than those of us who are more sedentary. However, generally speaking, the daily intake will suffice.
So, what is all this protein for?
We tend to know that protein helps to build and repair tissue but it is less known that protein is used throughout the body in a multitude of different ways. Protein, therefore, provides essential nutrients.
For example, did you know that our nails and hair is practically all protein? Or, that we need protein to make hormones? There are plenty more examples of how our bodies need and use protein but, ultimately, it is a nutrient our bodies struggle to function without. Protein is the building block for our muscles, bones, cartilage, blood and skin.
However, too much protein and not enough carbohydrates (which many modern diets advocate) may, in the short term, help us to lose weight but in the long term, the body ends up storing the excess as fat, which means we put on weight. Excess fat is definitely not the desired outcome for a diet where we have to endure fatigue, headaches and bad breath.
Our hair is made up of complete protein. (Source: Pete Bellis on Unsplash)
Less well known is that even athletes generally obtain enough protein from their daily intake of protein so the idea that we need more protein for muscle growth is, although controversial to say, a bit of a myth.
If weight gain was not bad enough, long periods of high protein diets can also damage our kidneys especially those who already suffer from kidney disease. This damage is due to the surplus of nitrogen found in the amino acids mentioned earlier.
Ok, now we understand what protein is and why we need it, let’s breakdown protein-rich food in all its forms.
Meat is the obvious and most well-known source of protein but it is also a good source of saturated fat, cholesterol and salt. There has been a huge shift in the last three years to plant-based diets that contain good sources of protein without the nasty bits.
There is an argument that animal protein is better for us because, most of the time, it contains all the amino acids the body needs in one go (complete protein), yet these can all be found in various plant-based foods or all at once in foods such as quinoa and buckwheat, which are high-quality protein sources.
Tradition, taste and convenience are often the three biggest reasons why a lot of us cannot imagine giving up meat but there are so many great reasons to go plant-based. It is something we all need to consider but it is also important to do your own research about health and nutrition as well as looking into the many other factors connected with eating meat today.
By ditching meat, we automatically become more adventurous with food, experimenting and trying new foods we would have never considered before. Meat has become so convenient and satisfying due to its high fat content that it is easy to forget the wide variety of other, more sustainable and nutritious foods available to us.
There are varieties of cuisines that have so many naturally plant-based, protein sources, especially Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods.
When it comes to high protein foods, especially plant protein, it is sometimes hard to think of quick recipes that we can enjoy on a regular basis without adding meat or fish.
There are plenty of alternative ‘meat’ and ‘fish’ options out there and more and more supermarkets are stocking these types of products. However, high protein meals do not have to include meat substitutes. Despite these alternatives free from cholesterol and containing less saturated fat compared with meat, these products are still processed, which means they can be high in sugar, salt and oil.
Placing protein-rich vegetables at the heart of meals and adding rice, beans and pulses, quinoa or buckwheat with lots of different herbs and spices, for example, can make meals both delicious and healthy. It is also easy to add more protein to a meal by sprinkling chia or pumpkin seeds before serving.
There are also soy products including tofu that is high in protein and easy to cook; it soaks up the flavour of any dish and a great substitute for meat on a vegetarian diet or vegan diet.
Beans are a great, healthy source of protein. (Source: Monkgogi Samson on Unsplash)
Understanding protein as a nutrient and knowing the best sources can help us to detach ourselves from meat consumption, which, in turn, takes away the risk of high cholesterol, leading to serious health problems. Knowledge is key. It is also about adapting to new eating habits and dropping habits that we have obtained over a lifetime; the transition is not always easy.
If this is the case, start small and break one habit at a time. Understand your likes and dislikes when introducing new foods and alter them accordingly. What is right for one person, may not be right for another.
Make an effort to visit plant-based stores and restaurants and put new flavours and recipes to the test. Find out if one type of cuisine is preferred over another or if one protein substitute for meat has a better taste than the previous. It is not a race to transition to plant-based protein but making those little steps in the right direction can make all the difference.
Some can make the switch straight away, others need time to find out what available to them and what will satisfy their taste buds. Whichever category you fall under, understanding your body and general health when it comes to consuming protein is vital. Staying healthy is the most important part.
And, don’t forget, there is plenty of guidance out there. Doctors and nutritionists can be a great starting point if professional advice is something that can help drive the transition.
Using Superprof for lessons on health or related subjects can also provide great support for learning about nutrition. There are plenty of tutors available in this subject and searching for the right one in the right area has never been easier.