Proteins are a vital part of every cell in your body and account for around 16% of your total body weight. Your muscles, bones, organs, hair, skin, and connective tissue are made from proteins and so too are your enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, haemoglobin and DNA. Without an adequate supply of proteins, your body can not survive. So what exactly are they, where do they come from, and how much do we need?
Proteins are large complex molecules made from smaller units called amino acids. There are just 20 different types of amino acids and from these your body builds around 10,000 different protein combinations. 11 of the amino acids can be made by your body, while the other 9, known as essential amino acids, must be supplied by your diet.
Dietary proteins can be divided into two categories; complete proteins and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are those that contain all 9 essential amino acids, and include red meat, white meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, soya products, blue green algae, hempseed, buckwheat & quinoa. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the 9 essential amino acids and include most vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and legumes. Nutritionists once believed that plant proteins were of a poorer quality than animal proteins, and even now are sometimes called 'second class' proteins, but this concept is considered to be now outdated. As long as a variety of plant products are consumed throughout the day, it is possible to obtain all your body's needs without eating animal products. However, this takes knowledge, preparation and a large volume of food.
The current standard method for calculating how much protein we need a day is based on the lowest intake for basic function. This is thought to be around 10% of your calorie intake (45g for a 1800kcal intake). However, most experts now agree that this is not enough for optimum health. A daily intake of around 20% of your daily calories (90g for a 1800kcal intake) is thought to be a better target. This means that women should aim for around 90g of protein a day, and men 110g.
To bring these recommended quantities to life, let’s assume that a portion of protein is equal to 23g. Women should therefore eat 4 portions a day and men should eat 5:
1 protein portion (roughly 23g): 30g pea protein powder, 80g red meat (beef, pork, lamb), 85g turkey, 90g chicken, 90g liver, 110g fish, 150g prawns and 150g soya mince.
½ protein portion (roughly 12g): 50-60g most cheeses, 80g broad beans, 100g eggs (2 eggs/4 egg whites), 120g yogurt (dairy & soya), 150g cottage cheese, 175g tofu.
¼ protein portion (roughly 6g): 80g kidney beans, 70g lentils, 50g mozzarella, 40g bread (1 slice), 30g nuts & seeds, 25g almond butter.
⅛ protein portion (roughly 3g): 5g spirulina powder, 5g sea vegetables (wakame, nori etc), 25g chocolate (85%), 40g kale, 60g hummus, 80g alfalfa, 80g broccoli/cauliflower/mange-tout/peas, 100ml milk (dairy & soya).
For an omnivore lady to obtain her daily intake of protein she needs to eat roughly, 1 portion of meat/fish, 2 eggs, 1 bowl of yogurt, a glass of milk, a couple of slices of bread, a handful of nuts and 8 portions of veg. As vegetables are generally low in protein a vegan lady needs to supplement her 8 portions of veg a day with higher vegan protein sources such as: 1 portion of soya mince, 1 pea protein smoothie, 1 portion of tofu, a glass of soya milk and a handful of nuts. While this is achievable it does require careful consideration and planning, and often results in a high soya (common allergen) based diet.
When considering how much protein we need, it is easy to understand that most of us do not get enough each day, especially when we do not eat meat. The detrimental effect of this on our health includes; decreased muscle mass, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, muscle aches, joint pain, swelling, low blood pressure, low heart rate, nutrient malabsorption, liver problems, anaemia, increased blood sugar, decreased metabolism, lowered immunity, bloating, food cravings, slow recovery from injuries, hair, skin, and nail troubles and brain fog. Therefore, your good health depends on you making protein a daily focus.
Now that you know how much protein your body requires each day; the next important point is to understand that not all proteins are created equal. When choosing your protein sources, you also need to take into consideration the following facts:
Red Meat (beef, veal, lamb, pork, venison, goat, duck): The meat industry fiercely defends the role of red meat in a balanced diet. However, research has shown that eaten in excess this type of meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer. This is due to a specific pigment that damages the DNA of cells lining the digestive system. Those who regularly eat 160g (5.6oz) a day may increase their risk by ⅓ and burnt meat increases the risks further. For this reason, the daily recommendation for red meats is around 70g per day or 500g per week.
Grain-Fed Beef: Cattle have evolved to eat grass not grains, however, many modern farmers feed their animals corn and soybeans to fatten them up more quickly and cheaply. The result is more money for them and a lot less nutrition for you. In contrast, a recent study found that grass-fed beef is higher nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), calcium, magnesium, and potassium; lower in inflammatory omega-6s; and lower in saturated fats. Therefore, always choose grass-fed beef.
Organ Meats (liver, kidney, heart, tongue): Organ meats offer the greatest red meat benefits as they are packed full of essential nutrients and protein. Liver, in particular, is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
Processed Meats (bacon, ham, sausages, burgers, salami, etc): These products contain nitrates and other additives and preservatives, which accumulate in your body and cause weight gain and ill health. The dangers of the processed meats have become so recognised that The World Cancer Research Fund recommends you avoid them completely, or significantly reduce their consumption to less than 10g per day. They also advise that children should never eat products containing nitrate, such as ham, sausages or bacon. Nitrate-free cured meats are available, but these simply contain naturally sourced nitrates.
White Meats (chicken, turkey, rabbit): White meats are excellent sources of protein and are lower in saturated fat than red meat. Turkey is a great choice for your evening meal as it promotes the release of tryptophan; which helps you to sleep. On ethical and nutritional grounds always opt for free range or organic poultry, however, be aware that these carry higher risks from exposure to microorganisms and some parasites than the caged varieties. Therefore, store them properly (freezer or refrigerator), defrost in the fridge overnight and cook thoroughly.
Intensely Reared White Meats: Intensively reared chickens and turkeys are bred to grow so fast that their bones, heart and lungs can’t keep up causing crippling lameness or heart failure. Many don’t get to go outside and big chicken farms can house up to 50,000 birds in one shed. This method of poultry production is inhumane and should be avoided.
Fish: Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet, as they are low in saturated fat and high in proteins, omega-3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients. Sadly, due to pollution, nearly all seafood contains traces of mercury and plastics. These substances have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and so, pose a considerable health risk. Therefore, while fish is advised eat no more than 350g (2 average meals) a week (preferably 1 white & 1 oily) and avoid high mercury seafood, such as shark, martin, swordfish, king mackerel (king), tilefish, yellowfin tuna steak.
Farmed Fish: Farmed salmon is lower in vitamin D and higher in contaminants (including carcinogens, PCBs, brominated flame-retardants and pesticides such as dioxin and DDT). The most contaminated fish come from Northern Europe and experts say that you can only safely eat one of these salmon dinners every 5 months without increasing your risk of cancer. In addition to these contaminants, there is also concern about the high level of antibiotics and pesticides used by the industry and these are then passed on to you when you eat the fish. The take home message is to avoid farmed fish.
Eggs: Around 47% of the eggs sold in Britain are ‘free-range’ (including 2% organic). Free-range eggs come from hens who have basic minimal standards including access to the outdoors. While this care is not perfect, it is better than the care given to enriched hens. Organic eggs come from chickens given even more care, and they are also higher in Omega-3 oils.
Enriched Eggs: Battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012. However, current enriched cages do not satisfy even the most basic needs, such as ground scratching, wing stretching, walking or flying. Unable to escape the close proximity of other hens, life in enriched cages, is one of boredom, desperation, frustration and suffering. This method of egg production is severely inhumane.
Dairy Products: Dairy products are high in protein and are also a concentrated source of vitamin D and calcium, both of which are essential components for bone health. However, dairy products also contain the protein casein and the carbohydrate lactase, both of which can be very hard to digest. It is for this reason that many people develop digestive problems when they eat too much dairy. In addition, casein also increases hormonal responses, leading to higher levels of cholesterol and fats in the blood. Cheese is also high in saturated fat. There are healthier ways to consume calcium and vitamin D than from dairy products, such as; bone broths; fish with bones; oysters; almond; sesame seeds and green leafy veg. However, as long as you can tolerate diary 1-2 servings a day is likely to be fine.
Soya (edamame beans, soya milk, tofu, tempeh, miso, soya meats and soya cheeses): Soya products are high in vegetarian protein and have oestrogenic properties. These can help with hormonal imbalances in women. However, soya products are often heavily processed and the high oestrogen content can have a negative impact on male hormonal systems. In addition, many people are intolerant to them. Therefore, soya products should be eaten in moderation for men and are to be avoided if an intolerance develops.
Nuts & Seeds (pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia, Brazil, pistachios, hemp, flax, chia, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame): Nuts and seeds are a source of protein, but they are also high in Omega-6, which is inflammatory. For this reason the recommendation is to eat no more than 40g of nuts and seeds a day (including nut butters).
Protein Powders (whey, egg, casein, soya, pea, rice): Protein powders are a great way to increase your protein intake. Animal sources obviously offer complete proteins, however, vegetable sources are a great choice for vegetarians and vegans, as long as they are mixed with other proteins.
In summary, we require around 4-5 portions of protein each day for optimum health, and most of us do not achieve this. Therefore, we need to make a concerted effort to eat at least a portion of protein at each meal. In addition, our choice of proteins also needs to be carefully considered for optimal health.
BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy, memBANT, memNT, memCNCH
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