Protein: the what, why and do I really need that cookies & cream protein bar?

Protein. It’s the buzzword in the nutrition and diet industry.

Want to build muscle? Eat protein. 

Want to lose weight? Eat protein.

Want to become a unicorn? Eat protein.

And when your finishing eating the protein, eat more protein.

Let’s not even consider eating less of the nutrient poor, processed carbohydrates such as white breads, cakes, biscuits, cereals and pastas, or eating more vegetables or even snacking on a piece of fruit. It seems that the key to a lean physique is protein, and at the top of the list, protein bars, powders and shakes. Which, just a fyi, are actually processed foods. Sorry.

So what is protein and why do we need it?

Foods are made up of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients being those nutrients that provide us energy: fat, carbohydrates and protein. The micronutrients are all our vitamins and minerals.

Proteins are often called the body’s building blocks. Every cell in your body needs it. They provide structure and shape to cells, organs and connective tissue, they are essential to muscle contraction, they help us fight infections. Plus they are enzymes, hormones and used for transport and energy. Protein also helps in keeping us full and satisfied.

Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids. 9 of these, known as the essential amino acids, cannot be synthesised by the body and must be obtained from diet.

How much protein do we actually need?

Less than you think.

The recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein:
• 0.75 g/kg adult women (0.94g/kg for women over 70 years)
• 0.84g/kg adult men (1.07g/kg for men over 70 years)
• 1.00g/kg for pregnant women
• 1.10g/kg for breastfeeding women

So for an average 60kg female, that’s 45g protein.

But I’m working out?

For many years, scientists have been investigating protein metabolism during exercise and recovery. It is necessary to assist in the repair and recovery process post exercise. To give you an idea, the estimated protein requirements for athlete’s are:

• Recreational exercise (30 mins 4-5 times per week): 0.8-1.0g/kg
• Resistance athletes (steady state): 1.0-1.2g/kg
• Moderate intensity exercise (45-60 mins 4-5 times per week): 1.2g/kg
• Football, power sports: 1.4-1.7g/kg
• Elite male endurance athlete: 1.6g/kg
• Resistance training (early stage): 1.5-1.7g/kg

So as you can see from this, the protein requirements to maintain protein balance even in our elite athletes is only marginally greater than those of generally active people. So for that 60kg female footballer, that’s 102 grams. Tops.

What foods should we eat for protein?

Protein is found in both animal and plant foods. Animal protein sources are considered to be high value due to being complete with all essential amino acids, whereas plant sources are incomplete and missing some important amino acids. This is not to say they shouldn’t be included. Our wholegrain breads, quinoa, rice, oats, legumes, lentils and nuts also contribute significant amounts of protein to our diets.

To give you an idea, here are some examples:

– 80g cooked chicken: 20 grams
– 1 small tin of tuna: 18 grams
– 1 large egg: 6 grams
– 1 cup (250ml) skim milk: 9 grams
– ½ cup cottage cheese: 13 grams
– 170g tub greek yoghurt: 17 grams
– ½ cup shelled edamame beans: 10 grams
– 1 cup lentils: 18 grams
– 1 serve of nuts (~30g): 6 grams
– 1 cup quinoa: 8 grams
– 1 slice wholegrain bread: 3.5 grams

And let’s put it into context.

You have a slice of toast with two eggs for breakfast = 16 grams

On the way to work you grab a skinny latte = 9 grams

You lunch on a roast vegetable, quinoa and tuna salad for lunch = 26 grams

Mid afternoon you enjoy a tub of greek yoghurt & berries = 17 grams

For dinner you whip up a quick chicken and vegetable stir fry. Without any rice, that’s already about 20 grams.

And later, whilst your watching the latest episode of offspring, you nibble on some dry roasted almonds. Another 6 grams

That’s 94 grams. Without taking into account other protein containing foods like mushrooms in your stir fry or the spinach in your salad.

So for that 60kg woman, you can see that she is exceeding her requirements with just real food.

What happens when you eat too much protein?

Your body cannot store excess protein to build muscle, and therefore it will work to get rid of the excess to maintain your protein balance. When protein is metabolised, it breaks down into a toxic byproduct known as ammonia which the kidneys need filter and excrete in the urine.

So to put it simply: you eat more protein, your put your body under unnecessary stress and you pee your hard earned money down the toilet.

So, are protein supplements useful?

As you can see, generally you can obtain all the protein you need from a mixed diet of real food. They can be useful when access to food is limited or you are struggling to meet your minimum protein requirements.

I much prefer people look at their current diet before turning to protein supplements. Because really, protein powders & bars & cookies are just not real food. They have been highly processed – the protein had to be extracted from somewhere – and often filled with lots of things.

Remember this snippet from an old post:
“But by all means, if you want to go the low sugar, cookies & cream flavoured protein bar, go for it. Just make sure you drink plenty of water to go with the whey protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate, emulsifier (soy lecithin), maltitol, cocoa butter, milk solids, cocoa liquor, more soy protein isolate, more emulsifier (soy lecithin), flavour, polydextrose, glycerol, maltitol, resistant starch (corn starch, maltodextrin), cocoa powder, unsalted butter, even more emulsifier (soy lecithin) and flavours.”

Plus they are expensive.

So basically to summarise:

– You do need to eat protein, but not as much as you think
– You don’t need that protein shake post hatching that 5km Pokemon egg
– You can meet your protein requirements through animal and plant sources
– And because of this, that protein shake post hatching that 5km Pokemon egg will likely just make your pee expensive
– Because your body cannot store excess protein
– Plus that protein shake is highly processed and full of lots of additives.

Have a fabulous weekend,

Emma xo

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9 thoughts on “Protein: the what, why and do I really need that cookies & cream protein bar?

  1. God forbid I tell people I’m a recreational half marathoner who also happens to be vegetarian. “But…but where do you get your protein from?” From food. In the correct amounts. Just like mother nature intended.
    Plus, protein powder just makes you fart. Like, a lot. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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