The 'Eat Right' challenge - Protein

Emma White - Nutritionist

There is no need to feel hungry when you are losing weight, providing you include the proper nutrients in your meals. This is where protein is a dieter's best friend. It is proven to help keep you feeling fuller for longer. But just like carbs, some protein foods are healthier all-round choices than others.

We're sharing how protein can help you! The best foods to choose, sharing some high protein recipes and discussing protein and exercise.

What are protein foods, and what is their role in our body?

Our bodies are made up of protein – so every cell in our body contains it! Hair, teeth, skin, bone, muscles, cells – even essential hormones, enzymes and antibodies that we need to stay healthy are made from protein. So the protein we eat is vital.

Different types of protein contain different amounts of the building blocks of protein called amino acids. Protein from animal sources is known as 'complete' because it contains all the amino acids we need, whereas protein from plant sources doesn't, so we might need to have more – and a greater variety – to achieve the same outcome.

Meat, fish, dairy foods and eggs are all great sources of protein, plus we also find plenty of protein in plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, pulses and vegetarian alternatives such as Quorn and tofu.

What is so good about protein, and what is the best type to eat?

Because our bodies are made from protein we have to ensure that we top up our protein supplies daily. Our bodies turnover (break down and build up) proteins constantly, so having a good supply of new protein is essential. Protein can help us feel fuller for longer because it takes longer to digest than some other foods. The type of protein you choose is vital because some protein-rich foods may also be high in saturated fats, salt or sugar.

Choosing lean protein is the way forward – see the list below – to help reduce the amount of sat fat in your diet. Although having a steak, burger or cheese sandwich once in a while is fine, try and limit these protein foods and opt for the leaner or plant-based proteins instead when you can.

Quality calories: great protein foods

  • Turkey mince
  • Eggs
  • Chicken breast
  • Salmon fillet Bonus for heart health. Max 1 x week
  • Tuna steak Bonus for heart health. Max 1 x week
  • Cod / Haddock / Plaice – any white fish
  • Quorn mince (P)
  • Soya mince (P)
  • Reduced-fat cheddar
  • Lentils (P)
  • Chickpeas (P)
  • Beans e.g. Kidney, Black Eyed, White (P)
  • Handful of nuts (P)
  • Nut butter (P)
  • Tofu (P)

(P) = plant-based protein


How much protein do I need each day?

Protein requirements can be calculated in a couple of different ways. At Nutracheck, we like to use the % of calories from each of the nutrients as this is an excellent way to balance out the various nutrients in the diet.

The recommendation for a healthy and balanced diet would be to have around 15% of your total calories coming from protein. If you are looking to build muscle and are into the gym, you might want to increase this level slightly. An average woman will need around 40-50g of protein per day, slightly higher for a man, but this is a guide and not set for everyone.

The government advice on protein requirements is based on body size – so an average of 0.75g per kg body weight is another way of looking at recommendations.

If you feel that you'd like to increase the amount of protein in your diet, Nutracheck has a choice of nutrient goals you can set – including a Higher Protein goal. Our nutritionists set this to almost double your protein intake (from 15% to 28% of total daily calories) but still ensure the level is healthy.

What protein foods should I be eating?

If you are trying to lose weight or follow a 'clean eating' programme, you should eat lean protein. What do we mean by 'lean protein'? These are foods that contain low levels of fat and saturated fat. That means the protein is delivered to you in a 'healthier' package!

There are different types of protein depending on the source – animal protein and vegetable protein. Both provide valuable amino acids in our diet, i.e. the building block for protein.

Lean protein examples

  • Chicken – breast meat and no skin
  • Turkey – the breast meat rather than dark, such as leg as this contains more fat. And no skin.
  • Whitefish – such as cod, haddock, plaice
  • Plain yogurt (Greek yogurt or Skyr type yogurts are often higher in protein)
  • Low-fat milk
  • Beans, pulses such as lentils and chickpeas
  • Quorn
  • Tofu
  • Nuts and seeds

What protein food should I limit?

Protein foods come with the general benefit of being more satisfying than other types of food. However – like carbs – the type of protein you choose is essential as there are other health aspects to consider. For example, fat content, particularly saturated fat, and salt.

Red meats tend to have a higher sat fat content, and processed meats such as bacon or sausages contain other additives such as salt and nitrites. The link between saturated fats affecting heart health is well known, and high levels of nitrites may be linked to increased cancer risk.

But what about the Atkins Diets?

A few years ago, the Atkins Diet was all the rage. People were apparently eating huge fry ups and losing weight – no wonder it attracted so many fans! It worked because it effectively cut carb intake and increased protein food, which is basically what the Keto diet does – but to a greater extreme. The difference is Keto focuses on carbs, and Atkins focussed on protein. The difference is that Atkins gradually increases your carb intake, where Keto does not.

The main issue with the message that you eat huge fry ups is that people also eat a lot of fat, saturated fat and salt. So for all-round health benefits and long term weight maintenance, this is really not the healthiest way to go.

Protein foods higher in fat/sat fat/salt

  • Steak
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Sausages
  • Bacon
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Full fat milk
  • Crème Fraîche
  • Cream

Why are high-protein meals a good choice?

Our bodies are made from protein, so we have to ensure that we top up our protein supplies daily. A good supply of new protein is essential as our body turns over (breaks down and builds up) proteins constantly.

Protein is also proven to be more satiating than carbohydrates and fats. This means we feel fuller for longer after eating a meal high in protein than a high-carb or high-fat meal. This is helpful when following a reduced-calorie intake for weight loss, as it's much easier to stick to the allowance if you don't feel hungry.

Another benefit of high-protein diets is that protein requires more energy to be digested than carbs and fats. It's estimated that 25% of the energy from the protein we eat is used to digest it, compared to just 5% for carbs and fat. This means that eating a higher protein diet gives us a metabolic boost too, as we burn more calories each day simply by digesting the food we've eaten.

High protein recipe ideas

From stews and stir-frys to paella and pasta bakes, we have some super tasty recipes that pack a protein punch. The foods listed after each recipe link include quality protein foods to look out for.

7 high protein meals – tofu, nuts, turkey mince, mixed beans, eggs, reduced-fat cheddar, salmon, chicken breast

High protein veggie meals – tofu, cashew nuts, mixed beans, eggs

5 high protein suppers – eggs, turkey mince, reduced-fat cheddar

To be as accurate as possible with your food diary, we recommend recreating these recipes in the My Meals section of your account. This is so you can record the exact brands of ingredients you use (as the calories can vary), plus add any of your own tweaks should you wish to.

Ask the fitness expert

We asked Fitness Expert Helen to share a few questions she often gets asked by clients.

If I exercise a lot, do I need to eat more protein?

As you exercise, your muscles form tiny tears, so your body responds by repairing the muscle fibres, resulting in muscle growth. Your body needs protein (and adequate rest) for this repair and growth to occur. An ideal protein intake would be 2g of protein per 1kg of your goal body weight.

So if your goal bodyweight is 64kg, your ideal daily protein intake should be 128g.

Will strength training make me bulk up?

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around lifting weights, particularly with women, despite being one of the most beneficial forms of exercise for both men and women.

A common misconception is that weight training will result in a bulky appearance, when the reality is that building muscle is hard and achieving the 'body building' look that so many people associate with weights needs to be done with intent and a great deal of dedication!

Aside from the aesthetic benefits of weight training – the 'toned' appearance so many strive for is achieved by building muscle and losing body fat – there are many other benefits, including:

  • Increased strength
  • Body fat reduction
  • Increased resting metabolic rate – muscle burns calories even when you're resting
  • Reduced risk of sarcopenia (muscle loss with age) – in the general population, this tends to start in the late 20s / early 30s
  • Development of strong bones – helping prevent osteoporosis
  • Managing arthritis and joint pain

A further comment on the third point above – having a good metabolic rate is really important for weight maintenance. So while you are on your weight loss journey, think of strength training as an investment for the future. Of course, it burns calories when you are working out, but the lasting benefit is how it changes your body composition. The greater the percentage of lean muscle in your body, the more calories your body will burn, even at rest.

Weight training has so many benefits – don't let a stereotype stop you from giving it a go!

Are protein shakes and powders worth it?

Protein should be a dominant macronutrient in your diet. Most people get enough protein in their diet, but if you find it hard to fulfil your daily requirements, having protein shakes and powders can be a convenient way to help reach your protein target if you struggle to achieve it through food sources.

There are several types of protein powder and shakes available. These are generally split into dairy – whey protein or plant-based – soy, hemp or pea. They can be bought online or from health food shops. Do your research and be aware that women don't need specific 'women only' protein (with a pink label) – this is often an advertising ploy!

Choose one with about 20g of protein per serving and is also low calorie, low fat and has as few additives as possible.

A great idea is to add a scoop of protein powder to a smoothie, porridge or yoghurt to make a tasty snack!

Check out answers to some other common exercise questions.

Protein: fact or fiction?

Eggs contain cholesterol, and cholesterol is bad for me * FICTION *

Although eggs contain some cholesterol, research has shown that it isn't the cholesterol in food that can impact heart health but the amount of saturated fat in our diets. Sat fat leads to an increase in our blood cholesterol, and this is why we should all look to decrease the amount of sat fat in our diets. The cholesterol in eggs doesn't have this same effect. In fact, eggs are a powerhouse of goodness containing a source of protein, and lots of essential vitamins and minerals. There is no limit on how many eggs you can have, but remember to include them as part of an overall healthy and balanced diet, and think about how they are cooked too.

Protein will keep me feeling fuller for longer compared to carbs or fat * FACT *

Protein takes more effort to digest in the body than other nutrients such as carbs and fat, which can help you feel fuller for longer. There is also some evidence that protein can help promote the hormones that help us feel full. Eating a protein-rich food at every meal is just one way of supporting your weight loss.

It takes the body more energy to digest protein food compared to fat or carbs * FACT *

We use energy to digest and absorb the food we eat. It is a pretty complex and involved process. This is known as the Thermic Effect of Food or TEF. Different nutrients use varying amounts of energy, and it is thought that protein has a higher TEF than fat and carbs, and in fact, this could be as high as 30%. For every 100 calories you consume via protein, up to 30 calories are used in the digestion process.

Steak is the best form of protein if you are exercising a lot * FICTION *

Protein quality is essential to ensure you are getting the right balance of amino acids from your food. Although meat does contain all the amino acids (which makes it a complete protein), there are other things to consider, such as the food's sat fat level. Other leaner meats are just as good in terms of protein content, such as chicken breast or turkey, but equally, fish, eggs and plant-based proteins can give us the essential amino acids we need to recover post-exercise. Variety is significant, so find a protein source that works for you.

Ask the nutritionist

I keep going over my protein target – is that a problem?

Having more protein than you need isn't a problem in the short term, but having excess protein regularly may result in some digestive issues. The maximum protein intake recommended for adults is around 2g per kg body weight per day, but aiming for less than 1g/kg body weight per day is sensible.

Are protein-enriched food products worth buying, or is it just an excuse to charge more? e.g. cereal bars/ice cream

Getting your protein from natural foods is the best option. Protein-enriched foods aren't necessary. Be careful that the products you buy aren't just more expensive and have additional less healthy ingredients such as high fat, sugar, and salt levels. Add another protein-rich food e.g. chicken slices, veg sticks and peanut butter dip, a pot of Greek yogurt, to your daily intake instead of spending out on a 'protein enriched' product.

I'm a vegan – is it harder for me to hit my protein target, and what should I do about it?

Being vegan doesn't mean you can't hit your protein target, but it might just mean you need to be super organised with your meal planning. Plant-based protein sources are widely available but make sure you have a good variety of different foods to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids you need. Lentils, chickpeas, edamame (soya), beans, peas, tofu, spelt, nuts and nut butters are all great sources of protein.

Will eating more protein make me build muscle faster?

The simple answer is no! Protein from our diets is just the 'fuel' that our muscles need to grow and develop. The only way to make your muscles grow and build faster is to work them – whatever type of exercise you choose, and whatever muscles it uses, helps the muscles to grow. Yes, we need the dietary protein for the muscle to physically grow, so having a good dietary source of amino acids is vital, but it's the physical work that does the job. Studies have shown that having a protein-rich meal or snack up to 30 mins after a workout helps our muscles to recover more quickly too.

Putting the 'pro' in protein!

Here are six great reasons to ensure you reach your protein target each day:

  1. Makes you feel more satisfied.
  2. Keeps you fuller for longer.
  3. Reduces the urge to snack.
  4. Repairs body cells.
  5. Increases lean muscle and strength.
  6. Helps with weight maintenance (through point 5).

And if you need help getting there, here are six top tips to help!

  1. Include protein in every meal and snack.
  2. Replace some carbs in your meal with protein-rich foods such as beans.
  3. Opt for grains such as quinoa and spelt instead of rice.
  4. When including carbs, choose wholegrain versions that have a higher protein content than refined versions.
  5. Add nuts and seeds to salads for extra protein without the bulk.
  6. Add ground seeds such as flaxseed to your smoothies or porridge.

Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.

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