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what is protein?

8th May 2017 by Jess

Why do we need protein? What does protein do? Our nutritionist answers all your protein questions and gives us some of her favourite protein foods.

ellie walking in gym kit with salted fudge & peanut cookie

What does protein do?

Protein is a macronutrient needed by our bodies, along with carbohydrates, fibre and healthy fats. It’s made up of amino acids, the building blocks of our entire bodies and an essential part of our overall health.

  • Bones & muscle - Protein helps your body recover from exercise and is key to the growth and maintenance of bone and muscle.
  • Hair, nails & skin - It helps replace worn out cells, keeping your skin, hair and nails looking healthy.
  • Brain - Protein produces important molecules like neurotransmitters in your brain.
  • Immune system - It produces antibodies, which help the immune system defend against things like colds.
  • Metabolism - Protein can speed up your metabolism, and it takes more energy for your body to process than carbohydrates.

As you can see, protein isn’t just for gym bunnies - without an adequate protein intake, our bodies don’t function nearly as well. It keeps you performing at a high level both in and out of the gym.

protein infographic

Why do we need protein in our diet?

30% of our muscle mass is made up of proteins only found in our food - our bodies can’t make it themselves. When we exercise, these proteins are broken down, so it is important to replenish them, to make sure your body and your muscles recover properly.

The good news is that there’s loads of tasty natural ways of getting protein in your diet, without relying on powders and shakes. The best way to nourish your body with protein is by balancing it with our other macronutrients throughout the day, including some form of protein with every meal and snack.

how much protein should you be getting?

How much protein you need depends on lots of factors, but one of the most important is your activity level.

If your daily activity involves moderate exercise or lasts for under 30 minutes, the recommended amount is about 0.8g per kg of your body weight. So if you weigh 68kg you should be getting at least 54g of protein in the course of your day.

[your weight in kg] x 0.8 = g of protein

If you regularly do high intensity training, heavy lifting or long endurance exercise, you could need anything up to about 2g per kg, to prepare your body and make sure you have enough energy to reach that finish line and recover efficiently afterwards.

[your weight in kg] x 2 = g of protein

A balanced diet should include a portion of protein for every meal. To maximise the nutritional benefits, your best options are foods that are high in protein such as: fish, meat, tofu, beans, lentils, yoghurt, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

One serving or portion of meat or fish is about the size of the palm of your hand, or your average deck of cards.

Add to this a portion of slow release carbs which could be root vegetables or whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa and two portions of veg, aiming for greens wherever possible and you’ve got yourself a perfect plate!

Our nutritionist’s favourite protein sources:

  • Fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, and shellfish)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Eggs (boiled or poached)
  • Nuts (almonds, cashews, & walnuts )
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia & flax)
  • Legumes (including beans, lentils & pulses)

what happens if you eat too much protein?

If you overeat protein, the extra is converted to sugar or fat. This might sound like a negative, but consider the fact that 30% of the energy in protein goes towards digestion, whilst only 8% of it gets converted to sugar and 3% to fat.*

A lot of people worry that a high protein intake harms the kidneys - this is a myth. In healthy people, normal protein intakes pose little to no health risk. Plant proteins are especially safe.

*source: Tappy L. Thermic effect of food and sympathetic nervous system activity in humans. Reprod Nutr Dev 1996;36:391–397.

Protein digestion tip

There are a couple of foods that help digest and break down protein: pineapple and papaya. They both contain bromelain which is an enzyme that helps our digestion when breaking down protein!

Remember that many legumes, beans, peas and nuts can be made more digestible by pre-soaking for 7-24 hours.

Jess flexing with baobab

We’ve made it easy to get more tasty protein into your day to help maintain healthy muscle growth. Support your active lifestyle with delicious protein snacks, created by our taste experts and portioned by me to give you a handy source of protein whenever you need a tasty boost.

Jess, graze nutritionist

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By Jess, graze nutritionist.

Our nutritionist extraordinaire, Jess trained at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and is a registered practitioner with the British Association for Applied Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She's the creator of our health badges, to help you choose the snacks and boxes that are right for you. Check out everything from Jess on our blog, with recipes and tricks to help you keep making better choices, or go to Jess's blog at jessipes.co.uk for even more.

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