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Protein – What, Why and How Much?

Everyone is loving on the protein at the moment, not only are more people opting for a high protein diet, you can now buy a vast array of foods with added protein. Protein granola, protein yoghurt, protein peanut butter, protein cookies and now even protein water – we are surrounded by #proteinproducts and it seems everyone  is buying in. Gone are the days where high protein diets and protein shakes were reserved for the mega body builders, protein is now being marketed to many other groups for many different needs. Weight loss, fat loss, muscle bulking, lean muscle building, meal replacement, blood sugar stability, muscle repair and increased satiety are just some of the claims about protein that are floating around out there. What of this is really true? Should we be having protein enhanced cookies instead of our usual choc chip? Let’s take things back to basics and have a look at the science behind protein.


What do we need protein for?

Protein is our body's building material, we break it down in to amino acids which function as our building blocks. We use it to lay down muscle, create hormones, make structural tissues and make many other molecules that are vital for normal function. While we can use protein for energy, this is not what our body prefers to do as it is essentially the body breaking itself down. Think of protein as the wood that your house is built out of, if you have lots of wood you can make your house bigger and stronger, but if you do not have enough energy coming in, you may have to burn the wood from your walls to keep your house warm. We don't want to be burning our wood! Therefore, we must eat enough protein to meet our body's requirement alongside enough energy from the other two macronutrients.


Protein and Exercise

When we exercise, particularly during weight lifting and resistance training, we create micro tears in our muscles. Exercise is basically damaging the muscles slightly because we are putting them under stress. In the recovery period after an exercise session, the body is trying to repair these micro-tears, to do this the body needs an adequate supply of protein. The protein allows the muscle to be rebuilt and if there is enough protein, it is rebuilt stronger and bigger than before – this is how muscle growth occurs. If the body doesn’t have enough protein, this process cannot occur properly, and it will take longer to feel recovered after a gym session and you likely won’t see muscle growth. Therefore, it is essential to give our body enough protein in this crucial period after the gym and this is why a protein shake is an easy way to provide this. However cardio and lighter exercise has much less of an effect on this process, and if your muscle isn’t being damaged as much, you definitely do not need as much protein.


Protein and Weight Loss

 One of the main benefits that protein has is that it is difficult for our body to digest. Compared to fat and carbohydrate, protein is much more difficult for our body to deal with and because of this it keeps us fuller for much longer. This means that for those people trying to lose weight, increasing their protein intake will keep them much more satisfied and less likely to reach for a packet of crisps at 3pm. Overall, people who are eating more protein and a bit less carbohydrate and fat are probably eating less calories overall and this is why it can be beneficial for weight loss. However, if you are downing the protein supplements and snacks and still eating everything else as normal, you may actually gain weight as a lot of these products tend to have a lot of calories in them.


So how much should I be eating?

The truth is that our diets are already high in protein and so most of us are probably already eating plenty. What it comes down to is your exercise level. The research shows that the more exercise you do and the more intense it is, the more protein you need. Recommended values for active individuals range from 1-2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. For the standard gym goer, who does moderate exercise a few times a week, around 1.5 seems to be the best figure. For those who are really hitting the weights most days of the week, you may need 2g per kg but this is really for the intense athletes. If you go to a few yoga and spin classes a week you do not need to be necking the protein! Let’s put this in to perspective:


For a 80kg man:
  • 5g of protein would be 120g a day
  • 2g of protein would be 160g a day


For a 60kg woman:
  • 5g of protein would be 90g a day
  • 2g of protein would be 120g a day


120g of protein could be:
  • Breakfast: 3 scrambled eggs and 2 slices of toast: 30g
  • Lunch: chicken wrap with hummus: 40g
  • Snack: apple and peanut butter: 8g
  • Dinner: Salmon fillet with quinoa: 40g
  • Dessert: 50g dark chocolate: 2g


See how easy it is to hit 120g with just normal food? The likelihood is most of us don’t need protein cookies and protein water, a protein shake after the gym is a great way to refuel and other than that you are probably already getting enough protein. So for the average joe at the gym, enjoy your normal cookie and don’t stress about the protein!