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Do you eat enough protein?

Protein as a nutrient does not get enough attention. Often it is associated with body builders and muscle bound blokes who can't scratch their own backs.

However, protein is without a doubt one of the most important macro-nutrients for all of us. Not only is it essential to build and repair tissues, it can be the key to helping people keep fit and reduce frailty into old age, lose excess weight, reduce the chance of injuries, reduce overall disability and much, much more!

Sarcopenia (thinning and wasting of muscles) is something I have talked plenty about before. I believe it is one of the biggest preventable threats to quality of life as we get older. Weak, thin muscles means weak, thinning bones. With this you'll get reduced balance, increased chance of falls, increased injury risk including muscle strains and bone fractures, reduced endurance and mobility, increased shortness of breath, the list goes on.

I have already spoken about the importance of strength training to help reduce the chance of a lot of this; see my previous blog post :

Protein however, is the key to building the tissues that strength training stimulates. Essential Amino Acids (organic compounds that are required to form proteins) cannot be made by the body, yet they are essential for building of proteins and synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters.

To be blunt - without eating enough of them, your body cannot function, repair, and regenerate properly.

I often see people in taking less and less protein as they age, and it is very likely this is one, very preventable factor contributing to sarcopenia. In fact, due to the reduced protein metabolism (synthesis of protein in the diet into muscle), experts in nutrition say that in fact protein intake should increase as we age. The aging muscle responds well to Amino Acids, but needs a higher intake of protein to stimulate protein synthesis.

You should be aiming for 1.2g of protein for every kg of bodyweight. If you weight 80kg, this means you should be eating 96g of protein, spread evenly into 20-25g doses throughout the day, every single day! Then consider that chicken breast has an average of about 30g of protein per 100g, and a chicken breast will weigh 150g roughly on average. When you've done the maths often it's surprising to see how much more protein we should be consuming.

The best sources of protein are:

  • Meat

  • Seafood

  • Poultry

  • Dairy

  • Eggs

I respect veganism as a lifestyle choice, but it must be done with careful and considered intake of 'complete' sources of protein that include all 9 essential amino acids. Veganism is a lifestyle and dietary choice that can work for a lot of people, but it can also be easy to miss important nutritional building blocks from your diet if you are not careful.

Vegan sources of good quality protein (and complete or nearly complete protein) include:

  • Quinoa

  • Tofu or tempeh

  • Edamame beans

  • Buckwheat

  • Chia seeds.

If an average sized chicken breast has 45g of protein, you would need to eat over a kilo of quinoa, or 500g of tofu to consume the same amount. You can't beat natural sources of protein, but for those of my patients who really struggle to consume enough, I normally recommend trying protein shakes. These can be a quick and convenient way to supress hunger or cravings, or simply top up your protein intake for the day. Vegan protein supplements are available as well.

Protein is also more filling than carbohydrate and fat for the same number of calories, so it can be a great way to help people to lose weight. You'll feel more full for longer if your meals have a source of high quality protein in them.

Protein also contributes of course to more muscle mass. Not only does more muscle mass help with all of the benefits I listed at the beginning of this post, it also boosts your basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn keeping your body functioning at rest). This means that you will burn approximately 100 more calories per day per kg of muscle mass you build without doing any more activity in your day! Now there is a life hack!

So, quite literally, evaluating your protein consumption should give you food for thought!

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