Should you be eating more protein?
From high protein yogurts to protein in Mars bars (yes really!) it seems that we're all being encouraged to eat more of this muscle building nutrient - so should you jump on board?
How much protein do we actually need?
Current guidelines recommend about 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day, so for someone weighing 60 kilos, that’s around 48 grams.
A chicken breast or can of tuna will give you around 30 grams, so this is pretty easy to meet in a day – in fact unless you’re following a vegan diet it’s unlikely you're not meeting this target.
The problem is, these recommendations are based on the amount of protein we need to avoid deficiencies – but that doesn’t mean it’s the optimal amount. In fact, there's lots of evidence to suggest that eating more protein could benefit us in lots of ways. Protein helps to keep us satisfied for longer, and helps preserve lean muscle mass (that’s the stuff you want more of) when dieting.
If you take two groups of people on a weight loss diet and give one group more protein, they tend to feel less hungry, lose more weight and retain more muscle, which is important for maintaining weight loss in the long term.
But it’s not just weight loss. If you want to build muscle, if you exercise regularly or just want to prevent losing muscle as you age, eating more protein is also helpful. That’s important because losing muscle mass means a slowing of metabolic rate and an increased risk of trips and falls as you get older.
It's not just how much, but when you eat it
There’s also the question of how we space our protein intake. Most people have a low protein breakfast (cereal), a small amount at lunch in a sandwich or salad, saving the big portion for a meat or fish based dinner. This is a very normal style of eating, but it's actually the opposite of research which shows eating 20-25 grams of protein at each meal is the best way to optimise muscle mass and help regulate hunger levels.
Bottom line? Even if you don’t choose to eat more protein overall, changing the way you eat it – so you have a fairly good sized portion at each meal than just in your evening meal – is likely to benefit you.
What about sustainability?
It's hard to ignore the growing concerns about meat intake and the environment, but eating meat and fish isn’t the only option. Eggs, milk and yogurt are protein rich (Greek yogurt contains twice the protein of regular yogurt) and whey is a great option after exercise because it reaches your muscles quickly.
Plant proteins including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and soy are also great for boosting protein intake, and they have the added benefit of fibre and antioxidants. Basing a few of your meals around these plant based foods each week is a great move to add more variety to your diet and benefit the environment at the same time.