6 tips on how to get enough protein

Not sure how to get enough protein? Wondering whether you can consume too much? Performance nutritionist Andrew Shepherd answers the common concerns.

How much protein should you have daily?

In the UK, adults are advised to eat 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body mass. For someone that weighs 70kg, this would be 52.5g of protein per day. The exact amount someone should consume a day is individualised, based on their activity level, with most sport nutrition recommendations being between 1.2-2g per kilogram of body mass per day. The activity type and individual’s current goals will dictate where in this range someone should target. For example, a long-distance runner would need high carbohydrate intake and be on the lower end of the protein recommendation scale compared to a weightlifter who needs a far higher protein recommendation, as their performance demands and goals are very different. In addition to the total amount, we also talk about protein scheduling, i.e. when you eat protein throughout the day. Based on research, 20-30g of high-quality protein every three-to-four hours is advised. This allows the body to spend the optimal amount of time per day in a state of protein synthesis (building) rather than catabolism (breakdown).

Is too much protein bad for you?

Having a high protein intake is generally safe for healthy people and there is no evidence to suggest it is bad for your health. However, it is worth thinking about the source of protein you are consuming, as well as the amount, because eating high amounts of processed meats and red meats has been linked to some diseases and health risks.

While the recommendation for healthy individuals is 0.75g per kilogram body mass per day, and athletes 1.2-2.0g per kilogram per day, for optimal protein intakes, there has been research using higher intakes, with some studies seeing no adverse findings with protein intakes as high as 4g per kilogram body mass per day. While these higher intakes may not have seen adverse findings, it would change the composition of the diet (e.g. to attain calorie balance, you’d need to consume a lower amount of fats and carbohydrates, which may be less beneficial for health or performance). In addition, these studies of up to 4g protein per kilogram body mass did not find a significant improvement in recovery or building muscle mass.

As protein provides the blocks to repair and build muscle, if you have too little protein over a period of time you will be in a negative protein balance. This can lead to muscle atrophy, meaning muscle loss, rather than hypertrophy, which refers to muscle gain. This is likely to negatively impact your performance and decrease your strength. In addition to these performance impacts, over time, overall health and wellbeing would be affected.

How do protein foods help build muscle?

Protein-rich foods can be broken down in the body into amino acids, which are often referred to as the building blocks required for muscle growth and repair after exercise. There are 20 amino acids, and nine of these are essential, which means the body can’t make them itself so they have to be obtained by the diet. If a food contains all nine of the amino acids, it is called a ‘complete protein’ and is, therefore, a high-quality source. It’s important to consume high-quality protein, not only to increase muscle size but also to help reduce soreness after a workout, aiding recovery. It is worth noting that although protein is needed to help build muscle, it’s not the only factor – protein will support hypertrophy (increased muscle mass) if it is consumed alongside a well-structured resistance training programme.

When is the best time to have protein?

Timing is key with protein. What the science tells us is that one of the most important moments to consume protein is within 30 minutes of finishing your workout, and this shouldn’t be used as a meal replacement. A good post-training habit would be to consume a carbohydrate-rich food, with 20-30g of protein and some fluid, within 30 minutes of finishing exercise. This could be a banana with some chocolate milk, or a favourite at Loughborough is a banana with one of Graham’s Family Dairy protein pouches (grahamsfamilydairy.com). They are easy to have on-the-go after training and contain 25g of protein. Then, within three-to-four hours of training, consume a recovery meal consisting of carbohydrates, colour (via fruit and veg) and protein.

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Can protein foods help me lose weight?

Protein plays a crucial role in weight management, but it’s essential to understand how it fits into the bigger picture. Protein-rich foods tend to be more satiating than carbohydrates and fats. When you consume protein, you feel fuller for longer, which can help curb overeating and snacking. Feeling satisfied after a meal is essential for weight loss because it reduces the likelihood of reaching for unhealthy snacks later. However, weight loss only occurs when your energy expenditure (calories burned) exceeds your energy intake (calories consumed). So while protein itself doesn’t directly lead to weight loss, it contributes to the overall equation by promoting satiety and reducing hunger.

Muscle maintenance and repair also play a role. When losing weight, preserving muscle mass is crucial. Protein helps to maintain existing muscle tissue and supports muscle repair. Adequate protein intake ensures your body has the necessary building blocks for growth and recovery.

Protein can replace less nutritious options in your diet. For example, instead of reaching for sugary snacks or highly processed foods, opt for protein-rich alternatives such as Greek yoghurt, cottage cheese or nuts. Protein-based snacks can help satisfy cravings without derailing your weight-loss efforts.

Timing also matters – distribute protein intake throughout the day. Include it in every meal and snack. Aim for a balanced approach – don’t load up on protein at one meal and skip it at others. And be mindful of portions – while protein is beneficial, excess calories from any source can lead to weight gain. So, pay attention to portion sizes and avoid overeating, even with protein-rich foods.

In summary, protein is your ally in weight management, but it’s not a magic bullet. Combine it with a balanced diet, regular physical activity and mindful eating for sustainable results. Remember that individual needs vary, so consult with a registered dietitian or nutritionist for personalised advice.

Which foods have the most protein?

Meat and dairy typically contain the highest amount and they also tend to be good sources of complete proteins (they contain all the essential amino acids). You can also get protein from beans, lentils, legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds. If you are following a plant-based diet, include a range of protein sources (variety is key) to ensure you’re having all nine essential amino acids required to make new proteins in the body, as one source of plant-based protein is unlikely to have all the amino acids.

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