Protein is our most satiating nutrient. We all know that full feeling after a nice juicy steak. It is a vital macronutrient, because protein forms all the building blocks of our body and is especially important in maintaining muscle mass and bone mass, which are crucial for our health and ageing.
Unless an individual has some form of dietary restrictions like vegan, most healthy people get enough protein to meet their daily needs in order for their body to function. However, some people in certain cases may not eat enough protein because the demands for protein intake increase.
The circumstances where a persons protein needs increase include individuals trying to lose weight, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with blood sugar issues, athletes and people under stress.
I would also like to mention that you may have heard that high protein diets cause kidney disease and cancer? This is not true. The kidneys filter out the byproducts of protein metabolism, therefore increased protein intake, requires more work from the kidneys. A person with healthy kidneys will have no problem with this extra load, however people who already have kidney issues, the high protein diet may exacerbate their condition.
Therefore a high protein diet is completely safe for people with no kidney issues, however studies show it may be an issue in those with pre existing kidney disease.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence that high protein diets increase the risk of cancer, as long as you’re eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
1) People trying to lose weight
Protein is our most satiating nutrient, therefore it makes us feel full more easily, compared to carbs and fats. If we feel fuller, we are more likely to eat less and lose weight.
Also, when we lose weight, because we are eating below our caloric needs, our body is in a catabolic state, where it is breaking down tissue in order to use for energy and other functions in the body. Therefore people who are on a caloric restrictive diet are at risk of losing muscle mass unless they feed the body with adequate amounts of protein.
The more extreme the caloric deficit, the higher the protein needs become. There is also research to suggest low-carb diets are effective for weight loss not because they are low in carbohydrate, but because they are high in protein.
2) People with blood sugar issues (high blood sugar and fluctuating between high and low)
High-protein diets have been shown to have a stabilising effect on blood sugar. They have also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, which therefore has a positive effect on blood glucose and blood lipid markers like cholesterol and triglycerides. Stabilising blood sugar swings have been shown to have a positive effect on mood and sleep.
3) Athletes and people who train hard
Protein is the nutrient required to build and rebuild muscle. If you want to add or maintain muscle mass, which is extremely important for any athlete, then you require more protein. Hard training breaks down muscle and therefore the body needs more protein to repair and build the muscle back stronger in order to deal with the next training session.
4) The elderly
As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass, therefore a higher protein diet in the elderly can help maintain muscle mass, which will in turn support health. Maintaining muscle mass in old age is important for strength, mobility, bone health and organ health, as muscle acts as an organ reserve. Increased protein and strength training is a great combination to support healthy ageing, mobility and reduce the risk of falls.
5) The chronically ill
Being chronically ill is a huge stress on the body. Therefore, without enough dietary protein, the body will break down its own muscle. A higher protein diet can help to prevent further tissue breakdown and reduce the adverse effects of chronic illness.
6) People who are under a lot of stress
As I mentioned above, protein has a stabilising effect on blood sugar. High stress levels can lead to hypoglycaemia or other blood sugar imbalances. Increasing protein intake—especially in the morning—can stabilise blood sugar levels throughout the day. This will decrease the risk of sugar lows causing jitteriness, agitation and mood swings. It can also improve sleep, and sharpen brain function.
If you’re chronically stressed, the tissues in your body literally starts to break down. Therefore adequate protein can help buffer this situation.
What to do now?
If you fit into any of these categories, obviously you want to increase your intake of whole-food proteins, such as meat, fish and eggs. It’s always best to meet nutrient needs from whole food.
We can get technical with protein amounts in grams and what percentage of your calories should come from protein, however turning food into math can be extremely annoying and time consuming. Therefore, I typically recommend people to judge their protein intake using their hands.
A male who is healthy and does not fit into the categories above should typically eat 2 palms of protein dense food at every meal (3-4 meals per day). However, a male that fits into one of the categories listed in this post, may want to add an extra palm or two of protein at each meal.
A female who is healthy and does not fit into the categories above should typically eat 1 palm of protein dense food at every meal (3-4 meals per day). However, a female that fits into one of the categories listed in this post, may want to add an extra palm or two of protein at each meal.
Stay flexible and keep a tab on how you feel
Sometimes, people can find it hard to consume enough protein from whole foods due to how filling high protein meals are. Also, due to time constraints, they may not be able to always sit down and eat a large meal. This is where protein powders and protein shakes can become very useful.
You can add a protein shake in between your meals (or in place of breakfast, perhaps) to boost your overall protein intake.
My protein shakes usually consist of:
- 1 scoop of a high quality whey protein powder or alternatively two raw eggs.
- 2 fists of spinach or some kind of green leafy vegetable.
- 2 teaspoons of a healthy oil of your choice.
- Frozen berries, banana or any frozen fruit of your choice.
For some extra taste you can add things like cacao or mint leaves. They too have some great health benefits.
Protein shakes can either be a source of additional calories if you’re trying to put on weight or aid recovery, or a means of boosting protein without adding calories if you’re trying to maximize weight loss or metabolic function.
It is important to get a good, quality protein powder that is manufactured in the right way. Some people don’t tolerate whey protein too well, therefore it is important to source an alternative protein powder that is bioavailable.
Bioavailability refers to how completely absorbed the protein is. In general, plant proteins like pea and rice are much less bioavailable than animal proteins like whey, egg and beef. Therefore, if whey does not sit well with you, find a good quality egg or beef protein.
Here is a good quality whey protein made from cows raised on a pasture. It is made from hydrolysed whey protein. Hydrolysed means that it is “pre-digested” and broken down into smaller peptides that are easier to absorb, and thus more bioavailable than most other proteins. It is low in carbs.