If you thought protein was only important for bodybuilders and growing kids, think again. Protein has many vital roles in keeping us healthy, and so we all need to make sure we’re getting enough.
Here are some of the essential roles of protein aside from building muscle.
- Repair and healing
As protein provides the building blocks for most of the tissues in the body, it’s obvious that it’s essential for growth, healing and repair. Our body heals and repairs all the time – not just when we’re injured. Constant repair is particularly important is in the gut, where cells are quickly worn away and replaced.
- It’s vital for the immune system
Antibodies – made by our immune cells to recognise harmful substances – are made from protein. Substances called cytokines made by the immune system to coordinate and control the immune response are also proteins (and hence are made from the protein we eat).
- Making hormones
Some of the body’s crucial hormones are made from protein. These include thyroid hormone, which governs our metabolism, and insulin, which takes sugars out of our blood into our cells for energy.
- Making collagen
Collagen is a protein that is found in high amounts in our skin, joint cartilage, tendons and ligaments, and in our blood vessel walls. It provides strength and structure to those tissues, including helping to keep our skin firm and supple, and our joints mobile and pain-free.
- Making neurotransmitters – for mood, energy, motivation, and more…
Neurotransmitters are substances that allow messages to transfer between nerve cells, in the brain and around the body. As well as allowing us to think, feel, and move, some of them – such as serotonin – play an important role in mood, and others in energy and ‘get up and go’. Yet others help us to calm down and feel relaxed. Many of them are made from amino acids, which come from protein (amino acids are the smallest building blocks of protein). For example, serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in high amounts in meat, fish and hard cheeses.
As the liver cleans our blood of wastes and toxins, it binds them to amino acids to remove them from the body. These amino acids have to come from the protein we eat. This is one reason why some health practitioners don’t recommend juice cleanses or any other form of detoxification that involve consuming little or no protein.
- Our most powerful antioxidant
We tend to think of antioxidants as coming from fruit and vegetables. And it’s true – these foods are rich in substances that have antioxidant activity. But our body’s all-powerful ‘master’ antioxidant is a substance called glutathione. Glutathione is made in the body from the amino acids glycine, cysteine and glutamate – which, of course, come from protein. While we could probably get by without flavonoids from vegetables and fruit, we wouldn’t survive very long without glutathione.
- Keeping muscles healthy and functioning well
Remember that even if we’re not trying to build muscle, having strength in our muscles helps us to move around and carry out normal daily activities. In fact, loss of muscle is a primary reason for poor health and disability in older people. Think about the consequences of a fall for an older person, for example; or not being able to climb the stairs, or get up and go to the toilet on their own. These things often happen because they have lost muscle strength. Because we lose muscle more easily as we get older, it’s more important than ever to get enough protein.
So now we know why it’s essential, we need to know how much protein we should be getting, who is at risk of not getting enough, and what we can do about it.
How much protein do we need?
Official guidelines for protein intake in the UK are 0.75 grams of protein per kilo body weight. So for a person weighing 60 kg, this comes to 45 grams a day; for a person of 80 kg, this would be 60 grams a day. However, many researchers and nutritionists believe that a lot of people need more protein than this for optimal health. For those who are recovering from illness (when we need more protein for repair), or anyone who is is exercising regularly up to moderate intensity, a better target is likely to be 1 to 1.2 grams per kilo body weight. Those who are doing resistance exercise to gain strength, or elite athletes, or anyone exercising intensively may get optimal benefits with around 1.5 grams per kilo or more – so 90 grams for a 60-kg person, or 120 grams for an 80-kg person.
(It’s also worth mentioning, however, that we can have too much protein, and so sticking to these approximate guidelines – unless advised otherwise by your health practitioner – is advisable.)
How do we get it?
Here are some examples of how much protein we get from different foods.
- 1 chicken breast or 1 fish fillet: 25–30 grams
- 1 beef fillet steak: 40 grams
- 2 eggs: 12–15 grams
- 1 serving of beans or lentils: 10–15 grams
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa: 8 grams
- 2 tablespoons of seeds or nuts: 4–8 grams
Who is at risk of missing out?
We can see from the examples above that animal foods tend to provide more protein per average serving. This means that vegetarians and vegans may need to pay more attention to getting enough protein from plant foods (and eggs and dairy, if eaten) to meet their requirements.
Others who may struggle to get enough include the elderly and those who are recovering from illness. They may have reduced appetite, or find it more difficult to digest animal proteins. As we’ve seen, these are two groups who may ideally need more protein than the average requirement!
What can we do?
For those who find it difficult to get enough protein from whole foods, protein powders can be helpful as a top-up. Whey protein powder – from milk – can be a particularly good choice for non-vegans, as the ratio of amino acids provided by whey is close to the ideal that our body needs. But plant-sourced protein powders such as pea, hemp, soya, rice or sunflower seed proteins are also great options. They can provide between around 12 and 25 grams of protein per serving. Protein powders are also easy to digest and absorb, and so can be good for those with little appetite or poor digestion.
Protein powders can be used to make a shake, added into smoothies, or stirred into porridge or natural yoghurt. Pea and sunflower proteins can also be mixed into savoury foods such as soups or stews to naturally increase their protein content; and you can also find recipes for brownies, muffins and energy balls that incorporate protein powders, to make your own protein-rich on the go snacks and treats. Give them a try!