Why is protein so important – and how much should we actually eat?


Every internet ‘expert’ has an opinion on protein. Nutritional therapist Karen Geary has the facts – and why you mustn’t ignore protein as you age

I gained a few pounds over the winter, so I have turned to my favourite appetite suppressant; protein. I also want to delay frailty in older age for as long as possible, so I’m eating more in order to increase my muscle mass (and I have recently increased my resistance training for the same reason).
Protein is derived from the Greek word ‘proteios’, which means primary. The 20 amino acids that make up protein are the building blocks of life. It is needed for the building and repairing of tissues such as muscles, bones, skin and hair, producing enzymes and hormones, supporting immune function and providing energy.
In the internet world, there are protein zealots who like to tell you how much protein you should be eating – normally alongside a product they’re selling! There are the gym bunnies, who like to go very high, and certain segments of the longevity crowd who often advocate low to moderate*.
So who is right?

How much is enough?
The current recommended daily intake of protein is 0.75g per kilo of bodyweight. If you weigh 60kg, that’s about 45g of protein a day. However, this is a minimum requirement to prevent deficiency; it is not enough to support optimum health. The amount you personally need depends on various factors – age, sex, weight, height, activity, health status etc.
People at risk of protein deficiency are vegans and vegetarians (who often do not consume enough protein-rich plant resources), and the elderly.
To delay frailty, the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics recommends a protein intake of 1.0-1.2g per kilo of body weight to prevent muscle loss and maintain physical function; that’s 72g of protein a day using my 60kg person example.
A palmful of protein for each meal should roughly get you there; perhaps Greek yogurt for breakfast, two eggs for lunch and a chicken breast for dinner. You can check your current intake using apps such as Cronometer or MyFitnessPal.
Most people don’t need to worry about eating too much protein. You need to eat more than 3.7g per body kg per day before it places too much stress on healthy kidneys!
Vegans need to take extra care to consume a variety of protein-rich foods. Some good combinations include beans and rice, hummus and wholemeal pita, tofu with quinoa and lentil soup with wholemeal bread.
Please don’t ignore protein!

Top sources of protein (in order) per 100g:

  • Whey protein isolate is 90 to 95 per cent protein
  • Chicken breast (30g)
  • Turkey breast (29g)
  • Fish (26g)
  • Beef (26g)
  • Pork (25g)
  • Seitan (25g)
  • Eggs (13g)
  • Edamame (11g)
  • Cottage cheese (10g)
  • Greek yogurt (9g)
  • Lentils (9g)
  • Tofu (8.5g)
  • Chickpeas (8g)
  • Black beans (8g)
  • Quinoa (4g)
  • Chia (4g)
  • Milk (3.3g)
  • Hemp (3g)

*based on mouse studies. We are not mice.


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