What you need to know about protein
Protein is a popular topic in the news and on blogs. Unfortunately there is much misinformation about it in the news lately. It is time to set the record straight and bust some myths. Let’s start with some basic nutrition knowledge.
There are three macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates. There is a term in nutrition referring to something as an essential nutrient, this means that you need to eat that nutrient for survival; your body either doesn’t make the nutrient or doesn’t make enough. There are essential proteins (they are called essential amino acids), there are essential fats (referred to as essential fatty acids), there are no essential carbohydrates, and your body can make all the glucose it needs without the need to eat carbohydrates. It doesn’t mean they are not beneficial for other reasons, but carbohydrates are not an “essential” nutrient.
Being an essential nutrient, protein is vitally important for health, essential amino acids (proteins) are required for good health and you need to get them from your diet. Here are some examples of what does in the body:
- Balancing blood sugar levels.
- Helping you feel full/satisfied after meals.
- Healthy bones.
- Building blocks for most bodily structures eg skin, organs and muscles (prevents muscle wastage).
- Building blocks (precursors) for making neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA and melatonin which control our mood, motivation, anxiety levels, sleep and much more..
- Transport of nutrients, oxygen and waste throughout the body, protein creates the structure and contracting capability of muscles.
- Connective tissue – creating collagen for healthy hair, skin and and nails.
Protein is found in meat (red/white), seafood, eggs cheese, tofu, seeds, nuts some legumes and vegetables. The most complete form of protein is one that contains all its amino acids, this complete form of protein is mostly available from animal products with a few exceptions mainly soy. I often see people explaining that protein is available in foods like broccoli, yes it is true but when you hold it up next to animal sources, you would have to eat an awful lot of broccoli to get the same amount of protein/amino acids.
The bioavailability (which is the ability to be absorbed and used by our body) of protein from plants is low and the bioavailability of protein from animal sources is high including: pork, beef, lamb, chicken, kangaroo, fish, cheese and eggs etc.
Animal protein is very nutrient dense, containing important fats and fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Vitamin A is required for healthy digestion of protein so it is important to eat foods rich in vitamin A. Vegan diets contain carotenes (pre vitamin A) but no actual vitamin A. Adequate fats and a healthy digestive system are required for your body to convert carotenes into active vitamin A, so vegans can end up being deficient in vitamin A. If you are vegan, you will need to combine 2 out of 3 of the proteins listed below at every meal to get a full protein 1) nuts/seeds 2) sprouted seeds 3) legumes, or you will become deficient in protein over time. You will need to ensure good digestive function and may also need to take supplements. The other nutrient that vegans commonly end up deficient in is Vitamin B12, which is required for healthy brain function and production of healthy functional red blood cells. Plant sources of B12 have very limited bioavailability.
It is very important to ensure you get enough protein from your diet, it is critical so the human body can function at its best. Protein deficiency can lead to type II diabetes, muscular deterioration, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, poor sleep, depression and anxiety. I don’t advocate a very high protein diet, each person has different requirements for protein so it needs to be assessed on an individual basis.
Eating protein does not cause kidney disease, in someone with existing kidney disease, a high protein diet can affect kidney function. This is because one of the main biological functions of kidneys is to metabolise and excrete nitrogen by-products from protein digestion.
When you eat protein the body releases a hormone called glucagon, this is the fat burning hormone and helps reduce inflammation in the body, however eating too much protein at a meal can cause an insulin response the same as carbohydrates do (this is a common mistake when people go on low carb diets thinking they can eat unlimited amounts of protein) without affecting their weight or blood sugar levels. The average person would benefit from approximately 25-30g protein per meal (based on 3 meals per day). Think palm sized for red meat and hand sized for white meat/fish. A larger sized person or someone trying to build muscle would need more.
|Examples of 25g protein|
|80g beef OR 80g pork||210g tofu|
|80g chicken OR 2 slices of roast lamb||3 rashers of bacon OR 150g ham|
|100g tuna OR 100g salmon||5 eggs|
Fiona Kane, Nutritionist, Holistic Counsellor & Life Coach