Protein - what is it, where do we get it and how much do we need?

Get Inspired

What’s the big deal about Protein?

18th April 2018

Protein has become a massive focus in the fitness and nutrition industry (and beyond!) and with all the talk about macros, flexible eating and #iifym, it’s easy for the less gym-focused of us to get confused about what protein actually is, what it does for us and how much we actually need.

Here, nutritionist Sarah Keogh from Eatwell breaks it down into the basics. Snack-sized you might say – just how we like it!

 

So, what actually is protein?

 

Protein is the name for a large group of molecules that are used in our bodies in a variety of ways.  There are functional proteins like enzymes that drive chemical reactions.  There are transport proteins that carry other nutrients – like iron – around our bodies.  And there are the structural proteins that build muscles and bones

All of them are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids.  There are 20 amino acids and our bodies can naturally make 12 of them (these are called non-essential).  We then need to eat the other eight “essential” amino acids every day so that our bodies can make all of the proteins that we need to function properly!

Image showing sources of protein

Photo credit: coachmag.co.uk

Why have I heard so much about protein recently?

 

Very simply, there has been a greater appreciation amongst people outside of elite sport of how the body uses protein to build muscle.  With many people focusing on building a strong body as opposed to simply trying to be thin,  protein has come to the fore. 

Exercise alone won’t build muscle: you need exercise and protein – along with some key vitamins and minerals.  Although most of us do eat enough protein for a sedentary life, people exercising at higher levels may need more. 

Including protein foods at meals and after-training snacks enables your body to do one of its most important jobs: helping you to repair, build and maintain healthy muscle.

Where do we get protein from?

 

We believe in a food first approach and good sources include meat, chicken, fish, beans, eggs and nuts.  You will also find it in yoghurt, milk and cheese.

Vegetarians need to mix the amino acids they get from beans, lentils and nuts with other amino acids in grains like wheat and rice to get all 8 of the essential amino acids needed.

Many people ‘top-up’ or supplement their intake with protein bars or shakes. This can be helpful if you find it hard to hit protein targets. 

 

How much protein do we need?

 

Most experts agree that the average person doing moderate exercise needs about 0.8g of protein per kg of their body weight

  • So a woman who weighs 60kg needs around 48g per day. 
  • A 70kg man needs around 56g
  • A 90kg man needs around 72g

What happens when you start to exercise a little more intensely?  The amount and type of exercise you do will have an impact on the amount of protein you need. 

  • Someone who goes to the gym regularly and includes strength training needs 0.8 to 1.2g per kg
  • If you are an endurance athlete then that can be 1.2 to 1.7g per kg
  • A bodybuilder may need anything up to 2.2g of protein per kg

image showing protein pancakes

 

Can you eat too much protein?

 

The human body doesn’t store protein! If we eat more protein than we need, our bodies have to break down the extra protein. Our liver removes the nitrogen and our kidneys excrete the waste products as urea. This leaves the carbon which is then used as energy or stored.  This is one of the reasons that significant overeating on protein (as with fats and carbs) can lead to unwanted weight gain and why we need to balance our diets.  

 

What is too much protein?  There are some differences of opinion but levels over 2.5g of protein per kg of body weight do not seem to add any extra benefits and levels higher than this may lead to some negative health effects.