High-protein, low carb diets for weight loss are the hottest topic today and every food marketer appears to want a piece of the protein pie.
Body builders are snatching, grabbing and gulping down protein shakes. Dieters are chomping down on protein bars and gobbling up meal replacement shakes in hopes of quick weight loss.
We hear it everywhere – eat more protein! But how much protein do we actually need?
Let’s go back to basics. Protein is one of the three main macronutrients, along with carbs and fats, meaning that we need relatively large amounts of it to stay healthy. It’s easy to understand the excitement! Protein is essential to almost every bodily function. It is an important component of every cell in the body as they cannot work without it; our hair, skin and nails are mostly made up of protein; and our muscles need protein to grow and repair. Protein is also very helpful in hormone balance and mood support. It really IS important!
Aside from being vital for our body to function properly, protein is also beneficial for weight management. Eating protein is a great way to stay satisfied. Protein triggers the release of several satiety hormones that send signals to our brain to ‘put the fork down’. Protein is also tough for our bodies to digest. That means our body actually burns a significant amount of calories processing it. Thus, when we add protein to our meals, not only do we fill up sooner and eat less, we actually burn more calories in doing so.
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, our bodies do not store protein, so it has no reservoir to draw from then running low.
Sooooo, the big question… how much protein should I be eating?
The recommended daily allowance is 1.2 grams per 1 kilogram of body weight. Having said this, there is no need to get caught up with the numbers. Rather than trying to count every gram of protein that we put into your mouth, aim to make 25-35% of the diet protein.
Different forms of protein
Protein comes from a variety of sources including meat, milk, fish, soy and eggs, as well as beans legumes and nut butters. Protein-containing foods can be roughly divided into three groups depending on how much protein they contain.
- High protein foods include red meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, cheese, yoghurt and beans. These foods contain around 20% protein.
- Medium-protein foods include grains such as rice, wheat, oats, millet and barley. These foods contain 6 – 14% protein and are considered incomplete proteins meaning that they should be combined with other protein foods to provide complete protein.
- Low-protein foods include fruits, vegetables and juices. Such foods contain less than 5% protein.
Let’s talk about protein supplements
Whether it’s on the tv, in social media or at the gym, protein shakes are increasingly becoming the athlete’s accessory of choice. This leaves us with a question… should we be relying on them as our main source of protein?
No, not necessarily! If you have access to a normal, healthy diet including lean proteins, then this should do the trick. But in specific circumstances, protein shakes are a good alternative. Here is a list of what you should consider before reaching for that shaker of yours:
Are you someone with a hectic schedule? Then a protein shake might be your best bet. They’re an easy and convenient alternative and a good source of complete, high quality protein. So if you need a quick supply of protein or are unable to prepare a whole meal, a protein shake is of course a better option than going without.
One benefit of protein shakes is that it only takes around 30 minutes to reach the muscle after drinking. This means it’s absorbed a lot quicker when consumed immediately after a workout. Solid food on the other hand takes more time to digest and the body requires longer to break down the protein and send it to the muscles. As you can see protein powder has an advantage when you take it directly after your workout, but during the day protein food is sufficient.
- Protein quantity and quality
One scoop of whey powder contains about 21g-27g of protein. That’s the same amount of protein as in a 4-ounce chicken breast, 250g of non-fat greek yoghurt or 1 ½ cups of black beans. Although the powder has a higher concentration of protein, it has a lack of other nutrients that naturally accompany proteins found in meat, fish, dairy products or wholegrains. Protein food offer vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and healthy fats unavailable in protein powder.
- Taste and satisfaction
Salted caramel, mint-choc chip, vanilla crème, cookies and cream; it’s no surprise that protein powder usually gets its taste from added artificial sweeteners. The use of artificial sweeteners in commercial processed food products, even in health supplements is widespread. The advantages are reduced costs and low to zero calorie content. The disadvantage, is that this artificial taste doesn’t come close to the natural goodness of fresh food. Plus, sipping on a protein shake is nowhere near as satisfying as a real meal.
These days many people turn to ‘protein bars’ to top up their protein intake. However, the truth being told, there really isn’t that much protein in them! The majority of protein bars share one thing in common: extra sugar and loads of it! Considering protein bars are frequently touted as a health-friendly snack or post-workout pick me up, this comes as a shock to most. The high-added sugar levels and weird unnecessary ingredients are hiding everywhere – even in the ones claiming to be ‘good’ for you. I know they taste AMAZING, you don’t need to avoid them altogether but start paying attention to the sugar and protein content of them. Next time you’re munching down on a Peanut Butter Grenade bar (you know the one!), check the protein content and if it contains less than 12g-15g of protein, get rid of it and find a new one! Keep it simple and choose a bar that has more protein than sugar. In most cases, the longer the ingredient list, the better chance that this product is not that good for you.
But remember, prioritise REAL food first!