Protein: Are you getting enough?
Nutrition information labels display information about protein. However of the three macronutrients in food - protein, fat and carbohydrates - protein may be the one most of us know least about.
How much protein do you need to stay healthy? What’s the best source of protein?
Protein requirements are complicated because the amount we need changes with age. The Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI - which has replaced the RDAs, or Recommended Daily Amounts), advises the following daily intakes:
- 1-3 year olds need about 14.5 grams
- 4-6 year olds need 19.7g
- 7-10 year olds need 28.3g
- 11-14 year old males need 42.1g
- 11-14 year old females need 41.2g
- 15 - 18 year old males need 55.2g
- 15 – 18 year old females need 45.0g
- Men between 19 and 50 years old need 55.5g
- Women between 19 and 50 years old need 45.0g
- Men 51 years old or above need 53.3g
- Women 51 years old or above need 46.5g
Two important exceptions are pregnant women, who need 51g of protein a day and breast-feeding women, who need 53-56g daily.
Another way to count protein requirements is as a percentage of calories. If you are eating a balanced diet, you should get about 15% of your calories from protein.
Are you getting enough protein?
Most people in the UK get more than enough protein in their diet. Good sources of protein are poultry, lean meat and fish. However, vegetarians who don’t eat these foods need to be more careful about making sure they get enough protein. Here are some good vegetarian sources of protein:
- Milk and dairy products (a cheese sandwich made with white bread has about 17g protein, while a 150ml (5fl oz) glass of semi-skimmed milk has about 5g
- Eggs (one average hen’s egg has about 6g protein)
- Pulses such as beans, chickpeas and lentils (just 3 tablespoons of cooked lentils provides 9g protein)
- Soya products including tofu, miso and soya drinks (100g (3½ oz) tofu has about 23.5g protein)
- Nuts and seeds
- Wheat proteins such as bread and rice (1 slice wholemeal bread has about 3g protein)
- Mycoprotein, sold as Quorn (14.5g/100g for Quorn mince, but this varies for other products and recipes)
The risks of too little protein
That shortfall could mean trouble. Protein is important for many physiological functions, from building muscle and bone to keeping cells in good working order.
Good protein sources
Fish and seafood
Seafood is one of the best sources of protein because it is usually low in fat. Certain fish, such as salmon, are a little higher in fat but it is the heart-healthy kind: omega-3 fatty acids.
Stick to the white meat of poultry for excellent, lean protein. Dark meat is higher in fat. The skin is loaded with saturated fat, so remove skin before cooking.
Milk, cheese and yoghurt
Not only are dairy foods excellent sources of protein but they also contain valuable calcium. Choose skimmed or low fat dairy options to help keep bones and teeth strong, prevent osteoporosis and enhance weight loss.
Eggs are one of the least expensive forms of protein. The British Heart Foundation says normal healthy adults can enjoy eating eggs regularly.
Half a cup of beans contains as much protein as 90g of grilled steak. Plus, these nutritious nuggets are loaded with fibre to keep you feeling full for hours.
This great and versatile white meat is 31% leaner than 20 years ago.
Twenty-five grams of soya protein daily can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Combine soya protein foods like tofu with a healthy low fat diet.
Lean beef has only one more gram of saturated fat than a similar sized skinless chicken breast. Lean beef is also an excellent source of zinc, iron and vitamin B12.
Protein on the go
Grab a meal replacement drink, cereal bar or energy bar. Check the label to be sure the product contains at least 6g of protein, and is low in sugar and fat.