Everyone is talking about protein these days. Those wishing to lose weight are switching carbohydrates for protein bars, whilst gym enthusiasts are gulping down protein in the hope it will bring a bit of muscle. However, what exactly is protein and what role does it really play in our nutrition? Is it as important as the hype it is receiving? What about if you are vegetarian or vegan – how do you know you are getting sufficient protein? What are the best proteins for vegans? The team at Real Foods, Scotland’s largest online retailer and leading wholefoods and vegetarian foods purveyor, shines a light.
What is protein?
Protein is in every single cell of our body. It’s considered a macronutrient, because we require a lot as it is essential to human life and development.
From the very moment we are born, protein is used to help us grow and develop, particularly when we are young, when we are adolescents, and also when we are pregnant.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids, which are important molecules for all of our metabolic processes. Our body is able to make some amino acids all by itself. However, there are nine essential amino acids that our bodies can’t make so we need to include these in our diet through.
How does the body use protein?
Your muscles, skin, cartilage and blood all depend on protein, as do your hormones. Protein is also a neurotransmitter or carrier, for example the protein haemoglobin transports oxygen in the blood throughout our body. Protein is responsible for both repairing, strengthening and creating new cells and tissues. It also helps create antibodies that in turn helps protect us from illness.
What do we need protein for?
Protein has lots of functions in our bodies. Structural functions, like creating collagen and elastic that provides support for connective tissue; hormonal elements, such as insulin that helps glucose in the blood to enter cells and maintains a balanced blood sugar level. Digestive functions as most enzymes, such as amylase, which helps break down carbohydrates and starches into sugar, are also proteins.
Where does protein come from?
Unlike fat and carbohydrates, protein is never stored in the body, so you always require a new supply of it in your diet.
Both plant and animal cells contain protein so you can get protein from both sources of food.
Is protein good for my health?
In a nutshell, yes! You probably know that water makes up most of the body, but did you know that protein is the second most abundant compound in the body? Amino acids are increasingly showing that they can also prevent and treat many metabolic issues, such as diabetes, infertility and heart problems.
Protein is most prevalent in your muscle, skin and blood. When you don’t have enough protein, particularly during key developmental stages, there is a danger that you will not encourage new cell growth in your body. In turn, this can cause you to become weaker and stunt growth.
What are common signs of a protein deficiency?
A protein deficiency can wreak havoc on both your physical and mental health. You might notice that your muscle mass is reduced, and your major organs, such as your heart and lungs, will not function as well. A serious protein deficiency can lead to premature death.
There are several common symptoms of not getting enough protein in your diet.
Possible symptoms of protein deficiency
- low energy level
- inability to build muscle mass or loss of muscle mass
- inability to concentrate or “brain fog”
- poor memory
- mood swings
- thin, brittle hair and nails
- edema (swelling due to fluid retention)
- unstable blood sugar levels
- skin lesions
- a sluggish metabolism which can cause problems with maintaining or losing weight
- poor sleep and insomnia
- low immunity
- hormone imbalances (shown through blood tests)
What are the benefits of protein in my diet?
Builds muscle mass
Protein supports your tendons, ligaments and body tissue, ensuring that you maintain muscle mass and also ensuring that your muscles stay lean.
Supports physical exercise
Burns calories & fat
If you were to eat the same amount of calories in carbohydrates and protein, you would find that you would burn more calories during the digestion process when eating protein, because protein has a thermic effect.
Supports the absorption of important nutrients
Protein helps other essential nutrients from your diet to be absorbed and transport through your body.
Improves satiety & reduces appetite
Studies show that protein helps you feel fuller than other fat or carbohydrates, meaning there is less likelihood that you will overeat. Eating protein is good for your resting metabolism. The hormones for stimulating your appetite are reduced, whilst more satiety hormones are secreted when you eat protein.
The downside of high protein diets however, is that over time the body gets used to the increased protein and so the diet loses its effectiveness. Similarly, if you stop a high protein diet, there is a high chance all the weight you have lost will return.
How do I know I am getting enough protein?
If you have heathy hair and nails then the chances are you are getting enough protein, as both your hair and nails are mostly made up of keratin, which is type of structural protein.
Will I get enough protein on a vegan diet?
Meat in general has higher amounts of protein than plant-based foods, mainly for the reason that animal cells are similar to human cells, and so they contain the full range of essential amino acids. However as long as you have a combination of plant-based foods you can ensure you gain the same amount of nutritional value as in meat, as a variety of amino acids actually boosts one another.
There are 20 types of amino acids, many of which our body can make on its own. There are 9 essential amino acids that we need to source from our food. By eating a variety of protein foods, you will be ensuring that you benefit from all types of amino acids.
Plant based proteins
Try to source your proteins from each of these groups for each meal: cereals and grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, vegetables and soya products. If you eat a balanced meal, the chances are that you are already eating more than enough protein.
Even the simplest meal of baked beans on toast, which combines both a cereal (wheat) and pulses, will complement one another, so there is no real reason you need to eat meat. In Asia, the popular, traditional vegan meal of dal (lentils) and rice, is similarly complimentary.
What are the best proteins for vegans?
If you are vegan, then you need to source high quality plant-based protein from:
High Quality Plant Based Proteins
- Pulses – Lentils, chickpeas
- Beans – Kidney beans, baked beans, black beans, lima beans, pinto beans
- Soya – Tofu (soya bean), edamame, soya beans, tempeh, tamari sauce, soya milk, soya flour
- Whole grains – wheat flour, wholegrain bread, wholegrain and brown rice, plain oatmeal, quinoa. Most whole grains provide you with 3 grams of protein.
- Nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashew nuts, pistachios, and peanuts. You can eat these in natural nut butter forms also, as they contain healthy sources of fat for you. 28 grams of almonds provide you with about 6 grams of protein.
- Seeds – sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds
- Millets – such as foxtail millet, little millet, pearl millet and sorghum, which can provide you with 6 grams of protein in every cup.
- Leafy greens – spinach, kale, bok choy
- Brussel sprouts
Soya and quinoa provide you with complete protein, so are an excellent choice. Soya beans are made up of almost 40% protein. Lentils are an especially good source because just one cup of lentils can give you 18 grams of protein!
Are there any proteins that are bad for you?
Processed food changes the amount and relative proportions of amino acids. Even the simplest process, such as baking food, can reduce the amount of amino acids, so the best kind of protein food are those that are in their natural state.
Should I eat lots of protein?
Eat smaller quantities of high protein snacks frequently, such as hummus with raw vegetables, rather than larger meals as this gives your body the right amount of protein it needs and not too much. Too much protein will either be stored as fat, or be disposed of.
How much protein should I eat?
The average woman in the UK is eating 75 grams of protein a day, while the average man is eating about 90 grams of protein a day, however the Department of Health’s recommended daily intake of protein is 55.5grams for men and 45 grams for women. Eating the right amount of protein is really dependent on how much you already weigh.
You can easily calculate how much protein you should eat with this formula: Your body weight X 0.5 = grams of protein to eat. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, then you will be requiring more protein. This is not a strict rule though, as gender, age and how much activity you do also have an impact on how much protein you should be eating. For example, if you are an athlete, then you might require more good quality protein.
As we get older, we need less protein because we are already developed. Excess protein is used to provide us with additional energy. In the UK, we receive an average of 16 % of our energy from protein.
Can I lose weight by eating a high protein, low carbohydrate diet?
High protein, low carbohydrate diets have an impact on our metabolism, by causing a state known as ketosis. Ketosis stops burning carbohydrates for energy into burning fat. Ketosis is actually the state that occurs in diabetics, and can suppress your appetite and encourages you to urinate more, which in turn reduces your water weight.
Does protein really build muscle?
Protein is known to improve and maintain your body tissue, including muscle, and boost your metabolism, but it is only useful if you are active – exercise is the only way to truly build muscle, protein just aids the process. An excess amount of protein has no positive impact on your health.
How efficient are protein powders?
The market is now flooded with protein powders that are sold in shakes, bars and capsules.
If you are looking for the convenience of a protein shake, then why not try some plant-based protein powders?
Hemp protein powder, made from hemp seeds, is one of the best plant protein powders as it contains all the 20 amino acids, and also contains omega-3 fatty acids, iron, potassium and calcium. Pea protein isolate, and soya protein isolate, are also fantastic vegan protein powders for you to supplement your diet when exercising.
But don’t eat too many
Whilst these protein shakes and bars are convenient when you are on the go, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) advise that high-protein foods are a better bet as they include many vitamins and nutrients and are a more balanced choice. Similarly, taking your proteins from food requires less work for your body as it is in a natural state.
Is eating too much protein harmful to my health?
By eating double the recommended daily intake of protein you are putting your health at risk – and the type of protein you eat has an impact also.
Studies have shown that excess protein can potentially harm your bones, liver and kidneys. You might find you have too much calcium in your blood stream, or get kidney stones.
A high protein diet may reduce your consumption of other beneficial foods, such as fibre-rich vegetables that will help your gut, while putting your body under undue stress as it tries to balance the body’s pH level.
Balanced diets are best.
Even if you are vegan, a balanced diet is the best diet you can have! Since 1963, Real Foods has been selling natural, organic and vegetarian food, and is Scotland’s largest independent retailer. Discover the many delicious plant-based protein products and other wholefoods that Real Foods stocks. You can pop into one of our two Edinburgh shops or we can deliver worldwide when you shop online.