Whether you’re the type that shuns carbs or the one that avoids all fat, one food group that’s probably on your radar is protein – but it can be confusing unless you read this need-to-know guide.
In recent years, protein has become the macronutrient literally on everyone’s lips. But according to new research by Healthista, more than 90% of us don’t know how much we need.
British nutritionists May Simpkin and Rick Hay reveal the seven signs you’re not eating enough protein.
You’re craving salty or sweet foods
“Protein slows down the release of sugars into the blood-stream, and therefore helps to ensure blood sugars are balanced,” says Simpkin.
“A low protein, high carb diet will release sugars quickly into the blood stream. Once insulin is released to remove these sugars, cravings will kick in as blood sugars quickly drop.”
Your muscles are flabby
If you’re not eating enough protein, your body will have no choice but to break down muscle to ensure its needs, Simpkin asserts, an effect that will be pronounced if you exercise a lot as your body will be using muscle as fuel which is not a good idea.
“This will result in weakened muscle tone, reduced muscle mass and weak joint support. Without enough protein, your body will also take longer to recover following injury you may also get increased muscle and joint aches,” says Simpkin.
Are you getting enough? Government says protein consumption should be 0.8g per kilo of a person’s body weight – but many fall short
“A low protein, high carb diet releases sugars quickly into the bloodstream. Once insulin is released to remove these, cravings will kick in as blood sugars quickly drop,” says Simpkin.
Your hair is failing you
Okay, maybe it’s not that serious but if your hair skin and nails aren’t as radiant as you would like, your protein intake might be the reason.
“Lacklustre or thinning hair, weak or brittle nails, nail ridges and dry, flaky skin are all initial indicators of lack of protein, as the body is unable to regenerate the cells efficiently to replace dead cells,” says Simpkin.
Poor immune health
Getting sick often is an indicator of poor immune health and can be as a result of lack of proteins, as immune cells are all made up of protein.
“Without enough protein, immune cells cannot repair and multiply quickly enough to combat bugs and germs,” says Simpkin.
Eat better: Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are all made up of proteins, while a lack of protein can lead to low mood, poor concentration and reduced mental alertness.
Can’t concentrate? Blame your lunch. ‘Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine are all made up of proteins.
“A lack of protein can lead to low mood, poor concentration and reduced mental alertness and these can also be exacerbated with similar symptoms of poor blood sugar balance if you’re not eating enough protein.”
Can’t sleep? Blame your dinner. Without enough protein, hormone production is compromised and cause imbalances that will ultimately affect sleep quality and disrupt your night’s sleep.
“Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps to induce sleep and eating a little protein around bedtime can help to improve sleep quality,” says Simpkin.
Find tryptophan in protein foods such as seeds and nuts, turkey breast, some cheeses, beans and lentils and eggs.
The release of stress hormones can increase muscle and tissue breakdown and it is important to note that this can be either physical stress (from over-exercising) or emotional stress, Ms Simpkin asserts.
If you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, there will be nothing to rebuild your tissues that are suffering as a result of your stressful lifestyle.
How much protein do you actually need?
According to government guidelines, your protein consumption should be 0.8g per kilogram of body weight. For an average sedentary woman, this is around 46g of protein per day (56g for men).
“This is a minimum daily average and should be considered a starting point,” says Simpkin. “Your protein requirement will be based on your personal health goals and lifestyle and factors such as activity levels, age, muscle mass and current health status need to be considered.”
In the following scenarios, Simpkin has recommendations for protein needs:
– If you’re an average healthy woman with a sedentary lifestyle: 1.0g/kg of body weight.
– If you exercise regularly: 1.1-1.6g/kg of body weight.
– If you’re very active and focusing on resistance training for around an hour a day: 1.2-2.0g/kg of body weight.
– If you want to lose weight and training/exercising around three times per week: 1.2-1.5g/kg of body weight.
– If you’re an endurance athletes: 1.3-1.6g/kg of body weight.
How to get enough complete protein
Eating quality proteins from lean beef, fish, poultry, eggs and diary as well as plant-based sources will provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs to function properly.
“In nutrition terms, the word ‘essential’ means these amino acids must come from the diet because your body can’t make them,” says Simpkin.
“Animal proteins are ‘complete’ proteins as they contain all these essential amino acids, whereas plant proteins are not all complete and will need to be combined to ensure an intake of all the essential amino acids.”
“Foods that provide all eight essential amino acids include meat, fish, chicken, eggs and dairy as well as whole-grains like quinoa and brown rice,” Ms Simpkin asserts.
Eating eggs and dairy (and fish if you’re a pescatarian) will be a good source of first-class protein alongside wholegrains to ensure variety in food choices,’ says Simpkin.
Whilst grains do contain all of these essential amino acids, they are in varying amounts and therefore combining these foods in reasonable quantities will ensure adequate intake of each.
“Ensure protein from a variety of sources, mixing for example soy foods and grains or beans/pulses where you can,” Simpkin advises. “This will ensure adequate intake of the essential amino acids the body needs.”
Other complete protein combos include: wholegrains such as brown rice and quinoa and beans/pulses such as chickpeas, soybeans and lentils.
Adding nuts and seeds will provide varied amino acids and essential fatty acids for optimal health.