The importance of protein

When it comes to protein there are the conventional wisdoms that many of us will have come across, and may well agree with.

Protein. It helps us grow. It helps us build muscle. It helps us recover post exercise.
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We are not wrong. But there is so much more to this mighty macronutrient than these three statements.

I like to approach nutrition not in terms of singular outcomes, but address the whole story - or as much as we can digest in one sitting (pun intended). My mission here is to share with you the lesser known powers and jobs of protein within our bodies and explain why it is so central to our daily lives, whoever we are and whatever we do.

Protein is essential. For everyone. We call it a macronutrient, which means it is one of the three major food groups in our diet, next to fat and carbohydrates. I hesitate to share guidelines for daily recommended amounts, as everyone is different and they don’t take into account any lifestyle/gender/genetic/particular health issues. They are usually set at levels that prevent protein deficiency (i.e they are generally well below the optimal amount), meaning we need to aim for a much higher intake to really enjoy the benefits that protein affords us. There are many areas to consider before deciding what level of protein consumption is right for you. Which is where a certified nutritionist can come in useful!

I want to dispel the myth that protein is primarily about muscle gain and hammer home that it is an absolutely essential nutrient required to provide amino acids that cannot be produced by the body.

There is a fear about protein for a certain demographic, that consuming too much, or even any at all, will make them “big”. And by big I mean muscular. The global media in this area has not been very helpful here, including marketing campaigns of protein shake companies and images of body-builders and muscle-bound gym bunnies. These images have led to an association of consuming protein with gaining muscle weight. Not incorrect but there is far more to it (more than this blog can dip into!).

What I say is “fear not the protein!” It is there to help us and make us feel fantastic in an everyday way.

So what benefits can we expect from our daily hit of protein?

  • Satiety (that satisfying feeling of fullness)
  • Proper functioning of the whole body - metabolism 
  • Preservation of muscle mass
  • Detoxification support
  • Body fat control
  • and yes, protein also helps with recovery

As you can see there is much more to protein than meats (!) the eye. Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.

Consuming protein at regular intervals throughout the day can help keep hunger locked up until lunch (and beyond). Forget Shreddies. And I’m not advocating snacking on chicken nuggets between breakfast, lunch and dinner (whatever works for Usain Bolt).

It's about whole food sources, and by that I mean food that has been subject to minimal change from source to plate.

These are such foods as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, tofu, unhomogenised dairy and lentils. They are far better than carbohydrates and fats at giving us the signal we've had enough. Protein takes much longer to digest than carbohydrates and fats, and requires more energy to absorb, transport and store, which is why it makes us feel full for longer. 

While we're feeling happy with ourselves for making the virtuous decision of eating fish with some greens over the cheesey pasta bake with a side of garlic bread of yesterday, what other super things are happening inside of us? The protein consumed is being broken down into its component parts - amino acids - and deployed to the areas of our body that need them most. Whether that's to repair broken tissue or replace withered cells; look after our immune system by producing more enzymes, neurotransmitters and antibodies; or do some manual labour by transporting atoms and small molecules around our bodies. Protein is truly multi functional.

Body Fat Control

Protein can help control body fat. Woop. Why didn't you tell us sooner I hear you cheer? Well, because it's just one of many benefits of this macronutrient. Being smart about nutrition is not simply about body fat percentage and weight loss. Having said that, when sugar levels drop, say at about 11 am when you're contemplating dunking a digestive in your hot caffeinated beverage, a friendly hormone glucagon is released which causes the liver to break down stored energy. The primary energy store is fats. So fats are being broken down for use in the body. How does protein affect this? Consuming it increases levels of this hormone glucagon. Boom. No need for that digestive. Protein helps us to control sugar levels by breaking down body fat. Winner.

Protein for recovery

And yes, as we are aware, protein is helpful for recovery. If we have had a good workout in the gym, smashed that spin class, or exerted ourselves on the playing field, our body will be looking for replenishment and ways to recover. During these fun and games, we damage old tissue and use energy. Energy needs to be restored, muscles need to be rebuilt and tissue needs to be repaired. Why? So we can perform again tomorrow, or the next day. Even if we are not training again for a while, an intake of protein following intense exercise can help us improve muscle tone, reduce muscle soreness, improve immune function and enhance our body’s ability to utilise body fat (see above!). It is worth noting too that during a workout, carbohydrate stores are also depleted, so it is a combination of protein and carbohydrate that we should look to consume for a full and balanced recovery.

Take away message: protein is for everyone

Whether you are a sedentary office worker, a regular gym-goer, or anywhere in between, hopefully now the multitasking macronutrient can be appreciated in a much fuller sense and you'll be reaching for it regularly, not just after the gym, and feeling better for it.

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My recommendation is the vanilla chai. Add this smoothies, overnight oats and whip up some snack balls to fuel your training. Remember to post up any good recipes you have!