Protein has been getting a fair bit of press lately. Despite the saying “no such thing as bad press”, things aren’t looking that great for this macro-nutrient. From Spirit Junkies such as Danielle La Porte musings to the widely popular Huffington Post article , it seems that there has been a bit of a backlash on the protein power. So, instead of taking sides, let’s just have a look at the basics around this macro-nutrient.

Whilst there is no Daily Upper Limit (UL) of protein, there is a recommended UL of 25% of energy derived from protein within the diet.(1) 

Portrait of Protein (The essence of essential)

If you have ever read a nutrition text book, or sat in on a lecture, you will hear protein is often described as ‘the building blocks’ of our bodies. These building blocks comprise of chains of amino acids; these chains, called amino acids, make up most proteins. You may have heard the terms “essential amino acids” on ads for protein sources or supplements. There are two groups of amino acids, ‘non-essential’ are amino acids that can be made from the body, and ‘essential’. Essential amino acids means that they must be consumed in the diet as they cannot be synthesised at all or in high enough quantities, by the body (2).

Power, Porters, Protectors and Providers

So often, when we think of protein, we think of Arnie Schwarzenegger or The Hulk, bulking up and amounting masses of muscles. Protein means so much more to our bodies than muscle mass. Here are two functions that protein assists us with.

1.Immune System responses – Protein assists the body to fight viruses. When our bodies detect that a pathogen is invading it produces giant protein molecules, called antibodies, that act to combat these invading antigens. If we don’t have enough protein in our bodies, we cannot maintain this defending army (3).

2.Energy and Blood sugar regulation –Your body needs fuel. Your body also doesn’t like the idea of running out of fuel, or experiencing the perception of running out of fuel. Whilst we often think of carbohydrate being our source of energy, the body can use protein to power through the day. Great sources of fuel are low GI foods, good fats, and protein sources, that help to provide long, sustainable energy. During periods of low caloric or carbohydrate intake, the body can break down tissue proteins and use the amino acids as a source of glucose production. This in turn means that protein can help in maintaining and regulating a good blood sugar level (3).

Proportion Perceptions

Per the Nutrient Reference Values (1) the estimate Average Requirements and Recommended Daily Intakes for children, adolescence and adults are based on limited data. It’s important when considering your daily needs of protein, to factor in personal health status and goals. Athletes who wish to gain muscle might need more than an office worker who seldom exercises. On average, Australia adult women are advised to consume 0.75 grams of protein per kilo of body weight, per day. An Australian male is advised to have a little bit more, sitting at 0.84 grams per kilo of body weight. Our growing pre-teens and teens should be eating between 0.77-0.99g/k based on gender and age.

Powerful Food Sources

There is an abundance of protein in a well-balanced, whole-foods diet. Many of us automatically think of big juicy steaks when we think of protein sources, and you’d be correct. Whilst animal sources are closer to the amino acid profile of humans (1), we can derive all the necessary amino acids from plant based foods. Good plant-based sources include almonds, cashews, grains like quinoa and rice, and tofu (4). For vegetarians, other good sources are full-fat Greek yogurt, cheese, and eggs. Dr Axe has a great infographic here .

Powders and Packets

For a lot of us eating a ‘typical Australian diet’, means we should be getting all the essential amino acids we need. I often get asked in clinic to recommend a good protein powder, and my first question to the client is, “what is the reasoning behind supplementing?”. For some of us, we are racing out the door in the morning, and all we can manage for breakfast is a smoothie. For others, we are supplementing to help with muscle mass gain, or thyroid conditions. Here at Studio You, we do a dietary analysis of all our new clients. Occasionally, we see that our clients are not hitting their RDI. In these cases,  we may advise short-term supplementation. Before boosting smoothies with powders, or chowing down on a power bar for lunch, have a look at your diet.  See if you can reach your protein targets with whole-foods first.

Facing Forward

Let your take away from today’s blog be, to take stock of where you are sitting with your protein intake. Also consider what sources you are using to meet your quota. In clinic we always favour good, wholefood sources of protein, and only supplement if there is an increase of protein needs, or a recognised deficiency.

  1. NHMRC (2014) Protein in Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/protein
  2. Hogdson, J.M (2011)Protein in Food & nutrition: Food and health systems in Australia and New Zealand Wahlqvist, 3rd Ed, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.
  3. Rolfes, S.R., Pinna, K., Whitney, E. (2009) Protein: Amino acids in Understanding normal and clinical nutrition Rolfes, S.R., Pinna, K., Whitney, E. 8th Ed, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Belmont, CA, USA.
  4. Hechtman, L. (2012. Clinical naturopathic medicine. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. Chatswood, NSW.
Jenna Verhoeven
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