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General Health - Do you have perfect protein balance?

By Kelly Rose DipION FdSc VN

Did you know that a normal lean adult body is 12-18% protein? Protein is an essential nutrient that is made up of building blocks called amino acids. The body can make some amino acids, but some are termed essential because we need them in our diet. There are hundreds of amino acids but only 20 have been shown to be vital for maintaining health. When amino acids join up they can create very different proteins. Proteins that have all the essential amino acids present are called “complete” or “high quality” proteins. Proteins that lack one or more of the essential amino acids are called “incomplete”. Good high quality proteins include free range chicken, oily fish, white fish, red meats, cottage cheese and eggs. Plant-based foods such as lentils, beans, wholegrains, nuts and seeds are “incomplete” although hemp protein is unusual being plant-based but “complete”. However, it is possible to combine “incomplete” proteins in order to provide all the essential amino acids. For example, beans can be eaten with wholemeal toast, although they do not need to be eaten in the same meal as long as they are eaten in the same day.

Why is protein so essential?

• Protein is incorporated into many of our body structures and an adequate intake is required to support connective tissues like tendons, ligaments and bone. Muscle tissue is rich in protein and contraction of muscle fibres allows movement of our limbs – always handy when you want to get from A to B! Skin, hair and nails are comprised of a protein called keratin.

• Hormones, which are responsible for regulating various physiological processes, are protein-based and play a role in growth and development as well as nervous system activities. Insulin is one of our most well known hormones and is vital for blood sugar control. 

• Our immune system is a very complex system and is comprised of many compounds including antibodies and cytokines, such as interleukins; these protein-based compounds have very important roles in fighting off foreign invaders!

• Protein is also required by the body for the transport of vital substances such as haemoglobin, which is responsible for oxygen delivery, through blood. 

• Enzymes are proteins that start biochemical reactions and are crucial in many systems within the body. 

With so many diverse uses it is easy to see how important it is to have an adequate intake of protein.

How much do we need?

Our protein requirements will change throughout our lives. Factors such as age, weight, gender and activity levels will all dictate how much we need each day. As a general rule the European Food Safety Authority state that 0.83g per kg of adult body weight is sufficient to support normal body processes. 

On a more practical note, the recommendations mean that the average man requires around 68g of protein a day and the average woman needs around 52g a day.

Higher requirements

There are times in our lives when we may have an additional need for protein. This may be for several reasons:

• Ill health – where there is increased immune activity and repair.

• Trauma – body cells and organs may need repair and remodelling.

• During childhood  – to aid rapid growth and development.

• Pregnancy and breastfeeding – the demands of another person, albeit small, give a large increase in protein requirements.

• Sports – those who are very active may need to repair tissues and protein is also linked with performance.

For those who partake in regular strenuous exercise such as resistance training or cardiovascular exercise, protein requirements can be around 1.2-1.6g per kg of bodyweight per day.

Athletes’ protein requirements (1.4g/kg)

Low protein diets

If we do not meet our daily requirements for protein or have difficulty digesting and absorbing protein, the body may start to show signs and symptoms, which may include:

• Poor hair quality – hair may become brittle, thin and fall out

• Dry, scaly skin and flaking nails

• Frequent colds and infections due to poor immunity

• Failure to grow.

High protein diets

Too much protein is as bad as not enough.   When protein is broken down it leaves substances such as ammonia, which the liver and kidneys have to process and excrete. Too much protein puts excess pressure on the liver and kidneys. In addition to this there may be an increase of calcium excretion due to acidic amino acid breakdown. In addition, high animal protein intake in healthy individuals increases the probability of forming kidney stones by 250 percent.

Getting the balance right

Working out how many grams of protein you specifically need is all well and good but how do you use that information practically? In real terms, how much of certain foods are needed each day? 

The key to ensuring a good protein intake is all about quality and portion size. Protein rich foods should be around 150-200g per portion, which is usually enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Obviously men have larger hands than women, larger protein needs and therefore their protein portion will be larger.

As an example a breakfast of 60g oats with 100ml of semi skimmed milk will provide 14g of protein. Two poached eggs on two slices of toast will give 21g of protein. A lunch of baked salmon fillet with salad will give around 35g of protein.

If you are concerned about protein intake, then hemp protein powder can be mixed into smoothies and shakes. It is a complete protein that gives 15g protein per 30g portion.

Although the facts and figures may be scary, working out your protein needs is a good tool to ensure you have enough to cope with day-to-day life and any other demands placed upon your body.


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