Updated: Aug 23, 2019
One top trending topic which seems to garner a lot of attention is protein. Protein is one of three key macronutrients we need to consume on a daily basis to survive and function properly.
Everyone seems to have an opinion or possess a bit of advice relating to our protein intake, and there is increasing trends for high-protein diets and protein supplements. Here I provide science-backed answers to some common questions I get asked, which will hopefully help you make more informed protein choices.
How much protein do you need?
For adult males it is recommended to have between 64 and 81 grams* of protein per day. For females they need between 46 and 57 grams* per day. Australians on average are eating too much protein, which can be attributed to our love of large portions of meat, particularly at dinner time.
Depending on your health requirements, men can safely consume up to 95 - 114 grams* of protein per day, and women 73 - 91 grams* per day. This level of protein consumption can help aid muscle maintenance and gain, praticulalrly during weightloss.
Exceeding 150 grams for men, or 120 grams for women per day can start to put stress on your kidneys and will lead to weight gain if you are not burning the extra energy which comes with high protein intakes.
Talking about protein in terms of grams can get confusing, when we say “64 grams per day” we don’t mean 64 grams of meat. What these numbers look like in terms of food:
As a general rule, we all should be spreading our protein intake evenly across the day, to ensure maximum usage and minimal wastage. At a given time, our body can only utilise 30 grams of protein.
If you think about your typical portion of meat at dinner (about two palms worth or 170 grams), that provides us with about 50 grams of protein, almost double what we can actually use. Therefore, the excess protein will either be excreted or stored as fat.
It would be more beneficial to cut down our meat portions at dinner and add more to our lunch and breakfast, that way we have a good supply of protein across the day which can be used to build and maintain our muscles.
*Please note these amounts are general guides for healthy individuals. Your requirements may differ depending on your weight and health condition. Please consult an accredited dietitian for more personalised recommendations.
Is plant protein as good as animal protein?
There are definite pros to eating more plant protein. Plant sources are lower in saturated fat, often contain fibre and anti-inflammatory plant phytochemicals. People following plant-based diets have been found to have lower incidences of certain cancers, such as bowel cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Alternatively, meat sources of protein have the edge on plant as they are a good source of iron and vitamin B12, which can be difficult for vegetarians to get in adequate quantities without supplementation.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Most amino acids we can make ourselves, but there are 9 amino acids we must get from our diet in order to function and stay healthy. These are known as essential amino acids. Meat has the benefit of containing all essential amino acids, known as complete protein sources, whereas plant sources do not, with some exceptions including soy (tofu).
Long-term vegetarians over come this issue by combining different plant-based protein sources to ensure they get everything they need. Examples of complete protein combinations are beans and rice, or wheat and nuts. So you might want to have a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and some Mexican beans with rice for dinner.
Another thing to consider is how our bodies use the protein we eat. More of the protein in animal sources is avaiable for us to use compared to plant protein. Therefore, we have to eat more plant protein to ensure we are giving our body the amount it needs.
Can timing protein intake with exercise optimize muscle gain?
Timing can be very important when it comes to exercise. If your workout includes weight bearing exercise, it is important to replenish your protein stores shortly after the workout to replenish supplies and prevent muscle wastage. The optimal window to replenish your protein is within 30 minutes to an hour after you finish exercising.
Going back to our building block amino acids, there a three known as branched chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. Branched chain amino acids are important in exercise as they tell your body it’s time to start building muscle, which can improve muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown. Foods high in branched chain amino acids are meat, dairy (including whey protein powder), and eggs.
Do you need to take a protein supplement?
Generally speaking, no. Referring back to how much protein we need each day, most of the time we will be getting the required amount from our diet.
Like most over the counter supplements, you can easily overdo it. With protein supplements, you can do harm, particularly to your kidneys as they need to get rid of all that excess protein you’re not using. Also, like other supplements, protein powder can often be expensive. So, if you don’t need that extra protein don’t waste your money.
Protein supplementation does have its place. When someone is struggling to eat enough food to meet minimum requirements and are not able to maintain healthy body functions, a protein supplement is necessary. This situation often occurs in people suffering from a condition where their appetite is greatly reduced, like during chemotherapy treatment, or when they have lost weight and are malnourished, which is commonly seen in people with dementia.
Are high protein diets healthier?
Although many people sing praises of high protein diets, particularly with regards to weight loss, following one of these diets long term can be unpleasant, unhealthy, and unsustainable.
We have naturally evolved to function at our best when we get around 50% of our energy from carbs and up to 25% from protein. When we upset this balance, we can find ourselves lacking in energy, unable to control hunger cravings, increasing the acidity within our bodies, and can upset our gut microflora. All of these can have significant repercussions to our health.
It is better to follow an eating pattern which you can maintain in the long run, that will ensure your overall health is maintained, not just your waistline.
Recommendations for you
Hopefully these answers have provided you with some clarification on the topic of protein.
The key message I would hope for you to take away from all of this is to spread your protein out evenly across your day and consume complete protein foods at each meal. Aim for 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Finally, don’t overdo it. Save yourself money and energy (literally) by eating whole protein foods in appropriate amounts.