Updated: Jan 2, 2020
Protein is an ongoing buzzword. Companies are monetising on protein, by adding additional protein to cereals, chocolate bars, yoghurts, pasta and even bagels. But how much do you actually need?
What is protein?
Proteins are large molecules, that are made up of smaller compounds called amino acids. Amino acids are very important, as they determine the structure, size and shape of a protein. There are roughly 20 amino acids, of which 8 of these must be provided in the diet; hence they are considered essential. These can be found in both plant and animal sources of protein.
Animal sources of protein are often referred to as complete proteins, as they contain all 8 essential amino acids. However, some plant sources are also considered complete such as soy beans (think tofu or edamame).
Where do we get the majority of our protein from?
Protein is contained in a wide range of different foods, although sources with a moderate-high protein content include fish, chicken, red meat, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, eggs and cheese. Adults in the UK get most of their protein intake from meat and meat products. This might be because animal proteins contain more protein per gram compared to other foods, such as vegetables or cereals.
For example, 100g of steak contains around 30g of protein whereas 100g of chickpeas containing 6g of protein. However, other vegetarian sources of protein can pack a punch; for example, a single egg or pot of yoghurt will contain around 7g of protein.
Why do you need protein?
Going back to basics, protein is contained in all cells and tissues within the body, hence it is essential for growth and repair of bodily structures. Protein is found most abundantly in muscle, skin and blood – so adequate amounts of protein are essential for the maintenance of good health.
Protein also provides energy, about 4kcal per gram. This is the same amount of energy provided by carbohydrates. However, protein is the nutrient that will keep you fuller for longer and has been shown to increase the rate at which you use energy, so it can also be useful in weight management.
How much protein do you need?
The reference nutrient intake (RNI) is the amount of a nutrient needed to ensure that the needs of the majority of people are met. For adults, the recommended RNI for protein is 0.75g per kilogram of body weight. Unless you are over the age of 65 years, then your daily protein requirements will be higher, around 1.0-1.2g per kg.
Protein requirements also differ for women that are pregnant or breast feeding. Plus, this amount may change depending on your training goals. For example, if you want to maximise muscle building capacity then 1.6g per kg is a sensible target (alongside sufficient physical activity).
Currently, adults in the UK are getting sufficient amounts of protein, and essential amino acids. Although there are some high-risk groups such as those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, or those with higher requirements such as older adults or strength/endurance athletes.
What does this look like?
So, for an adult aged between 18-64 years old, weighing 70kg this would equate to approximately 53g of protein per day. The best way to eat your protein is to spread this out evenly throughout the day as this will give your body a steady supply. Plus, you will be more likely to absorb all the protein this way, as your body can only absorb and use a fixed amount at any one time; the rest will be either stored as fat or excreted.
With this in mind, getting around 18g per meal would meet your requirements, or say 15g per meal with a couple of protein containing snacks in-between would suffice. It real terms, this might look like the following:
An omelette made from 2 eggs and a portion of cheese or two eggs (scrambled, poached, fried) on two slices of wholegrain bread with extra veggies such as mushrooms, onions, peppers and tomatoes for additional fibre. Or half a tin of beans with wholegrain toast and a sprinkling of cheese.
if you prefer a sweeter breakfast then some Greek or natural yoghurt, or make up some porridge oats with cow’s milk or soy milk (higher in protein than other alternative milks) – then add seeds, nuts or peanut butter to either with extra fruit for additional fibre. If you’re not a fan of nuts and seeds then adding half a scoop of any generic protein powder will provide a similar protein content!
· Main meals (lunch or dinner):
Chicken is particularly high in protein, for example a standard portion (around 125g) provides over 25g protein. Similarly, fish such as salmon can be high in protein (around 24g protein in a typical fillet); the guidelines recommend you eat at least two portions of fish a week including one portion of oily fish such as salmon. So, although these are healthier and more lean sources of protein than processed meat (bacon, sausages) you can afford to eat these higher sources of protein less often. Instead, try to incorporate more plant-based protein into your main meals instead or attempt a meat-free day each week; this will give you additional fibre, reduce your saturated fat intake and prove you with a different range of nutrients.
Plant-based sources include tofu, lentils, chickpeas, butter beans, falafels or meat-alternatives such as Quorn, Linda Mccartney’s or own-brand alternatives (Tesco, Sainsburys). Try tofu (approx. 100g is a portion) baked in soy, ginger and garlic with some rice or quinoa. Try swapping the mince in your chilli or spag bowl for lentils and mushrooms (for a meaty texture), or the meat in your curry with some meat-alternatives, paneer or chickpeas. Or make your own egg fried rice by cracking in two eggs to a portion of rice in a frying pan and stirring continuously until the eggs are cooked through.
· Snack ideas:
If you need something mid-morning or afternoon to stop you from breaking out in hanger on your colleagues then choosing something with a moderate-high protein content may be beneficial to keep you satisfied. Icelandic yoghurts have been risen in popularity in the last year or two, a typical pot will give you a whopping 17g protein; keep it plain and add in your own fruit. A serving of hummus is about 3g of protein, so pair this with some carrot sticks or cucumber for a savoury snack. Many brands of cheese do smaller snack versions of their cheese, which can be great for on the go or to put into lunch boxes; or you can be mindful of your plastic waste and buy these in the larger sizes, cut into smaller portions and put into re-useable Tupperware.
The majority of the UK population are getting enough protein in their diets, although there are some groups of people that may need to be more mindful of their protein intake (such as older adults, or those following a vegetarian/vegan diet). Meat and meat-based products such as chicken and processed meat are high in protein, so we can afford to eat these less often and swap for plant-based alternatives to increase our fibre intake. It is unlikely that you actually need to swap your normal versions of food for higher-protein alternatives, plus your bank balance will thank you for it.
If you are concerned about your protein intake, or your diet in general then speak to your local GP surgery who can refer you to a dietitian, or alternatively speak to a dietitian directly (check what is available locally, or see which dietitians hold virtual clinics).