My conclusion, before I’ve even written my introduction, is that food is subject to ‘trends’ every bit as much as clothes are. People are as fickle about food as they are about footwear and flared jeans. They’re in, they’re not. You like ‘em, you loathe ‘em. Buy ‘em, bin ‘em.
A couple of years ago, everyone was poo-pooing protein. Headlines like this were hitting the news:
“Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful as smoking”.
The Guardian, March 2014
18 months later, and protein is being idolised:
“Unstoppable rise of protein, the trendy nutrient that’s taking over menus. Like the comeback of a well-loved boy band, the nutrient has had a makeover and returns, presented to us as an ingredient in its own right”.
The Guardian, Oct 2015, Johanna Derey
The article following this particular idolatry headline goes on to discuss how high street food chains including Pret are now placing the nutrient rather than the ingredient centre-stage. Pret’s group director of food, Caroline Cromar, says they are catering to demand: “High-protein diets have been a big trend for some time, so having protein in the product name makes it easy for customers to identify them as a good source”.
The Good Life Eatery in Chelsea has a dedicated section on its menu for extra proteins, and The Black Penny in Covent Garden offers you a choice of proteins to accompany your salad, rather than listing what the foods containing the proteins might be. “We feel that it is a much healthier way to promote our offerings,” explains Zoe Notley, the restaurant’s general manager. “Instead of listing the protein as a piece of chicken, which is not as enticing, we wanted to appeal directly to our customers who gravitate towards healthier lifestyle choices.” Which raises the question: in what world is “protein” more enticing than “chicken”? Not in a world where people love food just for food’s sake, I’d argue…
The Guardian, Oct 2015, Johanna Derey.
…But possibly in a world where fitness is growing ever more popular.
So, in the wonderful world of fitness, I’m going to look at the important role protein plays.
First, the basics…
Proteins are nitrogen-containing foods that contain different combinations of 20 amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are considered essential, meaning that our bodies cannot make them and we therefore need to consume them in foods on a regular basis. Protein intake is critical for muscle repair and synthesis as well as production of hormones, enzymes and haemoglobin, and contributes greatly to satiety (feeling of fullness) and immune function.
For an athlete, inadequate protein intake could lead to muscle breakdown, poor recovery, increased injury rate and compromised immune function.
OK, so it seems there is a definite need, but when should we be taking on our protein? The answer is pre, during, and post workout.
Pre-workout intake of protein can help spare muscle glycogen during exercise.
During endurance exercise lasting more than two hours, studies support the intake of protein (along with carbohydrate) to help preserve muscle.
Post training protein will help support muscle repair and synthesis, and support immune function. It’s advised to consume this within the first 30-minute “recovery window,” and also to include carbs to help replenish glycogen (the carbs also cause insulin to be secreted, which helps your body uptake the needed amino acids from your protein).
Naturally, the next question would be “but how much”? In the UK, the recommended daily amount of protein for adults aged 19 to 50 is 55.5g for men, and 45g for women (excluding pregnant and breastfeeding women). Most of us eat more than this, and the actual average adult daily intake has been estimated to be 88g for men and 64g for women.
In the UK, enough protein is easily available from our diet. A chicken sandwich with about 65g of meat (about 2.3oz) contains about 20g of protein. If you also have a 150ml glass of milk (5g of protein) you have nearly half the amount needed for the average-weight man, and more than half of that required for a woman.
Athletes require slightly more protein than the rest of the population. According to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), endurance athletes require between 1.2 and 1.4g per kg of body weight daily, while those competing in strength and speed events need between 1.2 and 1.7g per kg of body weight. These intakes can easily be achieved by eating a normal balanced diet, and indeed most of us get all the protein we need from our diets.
Nhs.co.uk / British Nutrition Foundation.
So can you over do it with protein? Yes, excessive protein intake that exceeds the liver’s ability to convert excess nitrogen to urea stresses the body and can lead to increases in ammonia and insulin, as well as nausea, diarrhea and calcium loss, and increases overall fluid needs. Finally, when protein intake exceeds need, it is likely that other nutritious foods - and therefore critical nutrients, vitamins and minerals - are being “crowded out” and deficiencies may result.
So as with most things, adequate protein intake is critical to overall health, weight control and athletic performance, but more is not always better.
Most of us are getting what we need, but if you’re not, there are said to be some recognisable symptoms:
One of the first signs you're low on protein apparently: you start craving sweets and feel like you're never quite full, says Blatner. You'd think a protein shortage would trigger an urge for protein? But one of protein's most critical functions is keeping your blood sugar steady, which means if you're lacking, your glucose levels will be all over the place, encouraging you to reach for a quick handful of Haribo.
Balanced blood sugar is essential for staying focused. So when you're protein-deprived and your glucose levels are fluctuating constantly, you can feel a little foggy. Why? Because you don't have a steady stream of carbs to fuel your brain. Protein at meals helps time-release the carbs for steady energy rather than up and down spikes. If you're relying only on "fleeting foods," such as crackers or bread, you'll only experience short bursts of mental energy, followed by the fog.
You feel weak:
We all know that protein is essential for building muscle. And if you don't get enough of it, your muscles may start to shrink over time. As a result, you may not feel as strong, or be able to do the weights you used to.
Poor immune system:
Your muscles aren't the only thing that protein reinforces. Protein is needed to build the compounds in our immune systems.
Women’s Health, Feb 2016
Where to find good protein is individual to us all, depending on our likes and dislikes. I’ll just mention some of the best sources though…
Eggs: a medium egg has around 6g of protein in an easily digestible form.
Milk: dairy foods are packed with protein and contain bone-building calcium too.
Yoghurt: a combination of casein and whey protein…a great protein-rich food.
Fish and seafood: are good sources of protein and are typically low in fat.
Seeds and nuts – esp pistachio, are a practical protein choice if you’re on the move. Around 50 pistachio nuts will provide 6g of protein, plus sodium and potassium, the electrolytes lost in sweat during exercise.
Pork: high quality proteins also contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are key in supporting muscle recovery. Leucine, in particular, makes up one third of muscle protein and helps to stimulate repair after exercise. Pork is one of the richest sources of leucine and therefore a great addition to a post-exercise meal or snack. Eggs, chicken and lean beef also provide good amounts of leucine.
Chicken and turkey: when it comes to animal protein, opt for lean protein from white meat poultry such as chicken and turkey.
Beans and pulses: are great, value-for-money protein sources. Beans and pulses are also a good source of iron and fibre.
Source: BBC Good food.com
It’s also worth mentioning some veggies with good protein content. Vegetables aren't typically known for being the best source of protein, because most of them are 'incomplete' proteins, meaning they don't contain all of the essential amino acids, but as long as you’re eating a wide variety then you should be OK.
Peas: each half-cup contains 3.5g of protein.
Spinach: 3g of protein in a half cup of spinach.
Baked Potato: a medium-sized one contains 3g.
Broccoli: not just filled with fiber (2.6 grams per half cup), it's also a good source of protein, with 2g per serving.
Brussels Sprouts: these bad boys are actually nutritional superstars. Each half cup packs 2g of protein, along with 247 milligrams of potassium and 110 micrograms of vitamin K.
So, having started with my conclusion, I should probably end with an introduction. But that’ll just make the blog doubley odd, so I won’t. My final paragraph could actually be lifted from any one of my previous blogs…about carbs, fats, booze, water, tinned food…
Without wanting to do myself an injustice, they all say much the same thing…it’s all good stuff. Our bodies need it and use it. But consume in moderation – you can have too much of a good thing. Such boring, sensible advice…apologies. Is there anything we can safely binge on?? I really want to end one, just one of my blogs with the line: Beware moderation. To be enjoyed in excess only. Binge consumption recommended.
Suggestions on a postcard please…
British Nutrition Foundation
The Guardian, Johanna Derey.
I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.