Why is protein important?
Protein is essential for repair and make new cells - for your skin, muscles, and organs. Plus proteins are used to make enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones -basically all the things that are needed for your body to work! Then when it comes to working out, protein is needed to help repair the muscle fibres damaged during your workout - helping you to recover, get stronger and build muscle mass. Protein also helps you to feel fuller for longer with less food as it reduces your level of the hunger hormone ghrelin, and boosts the levels of a peptide that helps you feel more full. Protein also boosts metabolism and therefore pretty much always features highly in any weight / fat loss diet combined with a calorie deficit.
The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. And there are 8 essential amino acids which we have to get through diet as they can't be made within the body. You will have heard of 'high quality' protein foods - these are those high in all of these essential amino acids. These are most meat, fish, dairy, eggs and soya.
'Incomplete' proteins are those that are missing one of the essential amino acids. This is when you then need to combine with another protein source to complete the amino acid profile. This doesn't have to be at every meal - just as long as you're getting the a range of protein sources across the 24 hour period. In simple terms (and if you are a vegetarian), this would be to combine foods from TWO or more of the following:
1. Pulses: beans, lentils and peas
2. Grains: bread, pasta, rice, oats, breakfast cereals, quinoa
3. Nuts and seeds: peanuts, cashew, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
4. Dairy products: milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs (eggs aren't dairy but are shoved in this grp)
5. Soya products: milk, yoghurt, tofu, soya beans, edamame beans, mince
So things like having seeds with your yoghurt, or rice with your beans, or peas with your edamame and you're getting there.
How much protein do I need?
For the general population the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight. But for people train regularly or athletes it is between 1.2g and 1.8g per kg of bodyweight per day. So, depending on how much your training and what you're doing in your training - more strength and power training require more protein typically than endurance, I suggest consuming at least 1g of protein a day. So if you weighed 70kg, that would be 70g of protein a day.
It can sound like quite a lot but it is very achievable if you think of your protein source at each meal and build your dish around that. It is typically easier to hit protein targets with a diet that contains meat & fish (more concentrated protein sources) but it is also fairly easy on a vegetarian or even vegan diet - you just have to up the volume a bit and combine sources to hit that essential amino acid profile!
How much protein is in what?
Here is a table showing some key foods and their approximate protein content to help you in meal prep and planning.