Protein is a macronutrient that the body breaks down into amino acids for use in tissue growth and repair.

Protein is a macronutrient that the body breaks down into amino acids for use in tissue growth and repair. Sufficient protein is needed to repair the body after exercise in addition to meeting the daily needs. Active people therefore require more protein than less active ones.

The proteins we eat can be divided into 2 groups, which are known as complete and incomplete. Complete proteins generally come from animal sources and incomplete ones come from plants:

Complete – meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese) and soya

Incomplete – cereals, legumes (beans, peas etc.), fruits/vegetables (lower in protein)

When a protein is broken down its component amino acids (of which there are 20) join the blood pool. From here they are used as needed. Unlike carbohydrates and fats there is no long term storage site for proteins that are not in use. This means that proteins must be taken in regularly and in the correct amounts. Excessive amounts can overload the liver and kidneys and can be converted into fat for storage, albeit not as easily as fats and carbohydrates.

Protein is the body’s building block. All of our organs, including skin, hair, nails and muscles are built from proteins. If our diets contained no protein then in order to survive out bodies would start to break down muscles to produce the protein it needed. Therefore we can see how essential it is that we continually replace what our bodies use. It’s particularly important for children, adolescents and pregnant women who all are growing and developing to be aware of this.

The average recommended protein intake is 0.8g for each kg of bodyweight. For example if you weigh 100kg you should consume 80g of protein per day.

Most people on modern diets do consume more protein than necessary. We could spend a lot of time calculating protein values of our food. For example it would be assumed that if we ate 100g of a protein rich food, such as tuna, we would get 100g of protein. However, it’s not that simple as most protein rich foods also contain a lot of water, and contain only 20% protein. This means that if we required 40g protein we would have to eat 200g of tuna! If we exercise more then we need to eat more protein too!

Again, the key is to have a healthy balanced diet. A simple way to think about protein intake is to think about high protein foods making up a quarter of our diets with carbohydrates being the other quarter and the other half being fresh fruits and vegetables. Just as recommended by the NHS Food Plate.

Examples of Good Protein Sources

Meats and poultry. Opt for lean meat cuts so that they contain less saturated fat.

Fish. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines contain more protein than white fish such as cod, plaice and tuna.

Eggs. One large egg can contain as much as 6g. Eggs are an extremely important source of protein for vegetarians.

Dairy products. Skimmed milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais. When choosing dairy products opt for low fat alternatives as these will have the fat reduced or removed. Removing or reducing the fat content does not remove the protein because it comes from the milk and not the fat.

Beans. These are a good source of vegetable protein and essential to vegans. Soya beans, kidney beans and lentil too are important. Peanuts (which are actually beans and not nuts) contain almost 25% protein.

Nuts and seeds. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds contain protein as well as being a good source of many other vitamins and minerals needed by our bodies.

Other sources. Whole grains, oats, barley and brown rice. Also, certain vegetables especially asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and avocado.

Supplements. Protein supplements such as shakes are available. It should be noted that these shakes may also contain sugars, sweeteners, colours and other artificial flavours to in order to improve the overall taste.

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