Should you be eating more protein?

Protein has been getting a lot of airtime recently. It’s the one nutrient we’re all becoming more aware of, and yesterday I posted a link to research from Canada suggesting its time recommendations on protein needs are updated.

How much?

Current guidelines say we should be eating about 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight, so if you weigh 60 kilos, that’s about 48 grams. A chicken breast or can of tuna will give you around 30 grams, so this isn’t hard to meet – in fact unless you’re following a vegan diet it’s unlikely you fall short.

The problem is, these  recommendations are based on the amount of protein we need to avoid  running into problems – to make sure we have enough for normal tissue repair and turnover, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the optimal amount. In fact, lots of evidence exists to suggest that eating more protein could benefit us in lots of ways. Protein helps keep us full – it suppresses appetite and helps preserve lean muscle mass (that’s the stuff you want more of) when dieting.

If you take two groups of people on a weight loss diet and give one group more protein, they tend to feel less hungry, lose more weight and retain more muscle, which is important for keeping weight off in the long term. This is one of the reasons I recommend people eat more protein rich meals when trying to lose weight. But it’s not just weight loss. If you want to build muscle, if you exercise regularly or just want to prevent losing muscle as you age, eating more protein is also a wise move. That’s important because losing muscle mass means a slowing of metabolic rate and an increased risk of trips and falls as you get older.

Space it out 

There’s also the question of how we space out our protein intake. Most of us have a low protein breakfast (cereal), a small amount at lunch in a sandwich or salad, saving the big protein portion for a meat or fish based dinner.  This is the opposite of emerging research which shows eating a protein at each meal is the best way to optimise muscle mass and help regulate appetite (see here for more info).

Bottom line? Even if you don’t choose to eat more protein overall, changing the way you eat it – so eating a decent portion three times a day rather than just at your evening meal – is likely to benefit you.

It’s worth noting that any recommendation to eat more protein comes with the concern about sustainability. Don’t forget that eating meat and fish isn’t the only way to increase protein intake. Eggs, milk and yoghurt are protein rich (Greek yoghurt contains twice the protein of regular yoghurt), and whey is a great option after exercise because it reaches your muscles quickly.  Plant proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and soy are also great for boosting protein intake, and they have the added benefit of fibre and antioxidants.