Protein: What you need to know

Everyone needs protein, but it’s not all about steak. Our Heart Health Dietitian Tracy Parker answers common questions about protein.

A selection of different beans and pulses

Protein is essential for a healthy diet. You might think meat is the best way to get it, but there’s growing evidence that swapping a diet rich in animal protein (such as meat and dairy) for one high in pulses, nuts and grains could help you live longer.

In 2016, new dietary guidelines placed greater emphasis on non-meat sources of protein. We don’t need to avoid meat and dairy entirely, but it does remind us that we need a varied diet to stay healthy.

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What is protein? 

Proteins are known as the building blocks of life as they break down into amino acids that help the body grow and repair. Our hair, skin and muscle are all made from the protein we eat. Animal foods and three plant sources – soy protein, quinoa and Quorn – contain all the essential amino acids needed for good health. Other plant sources of protein lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Sometimes animal protein is thought of as a ‘complete protein’ for this reason. But it’s not true that vegetarians will lack protein, or that you need to eat plant-based proteins in certain combinations. Eating a variety of plant protein each day gives you all the essential amino acids you need.

How much protein do I need?

Most adults need around 0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight per day (for the average woman, this is 45g, or 55g for men). That’s about two portions of meat, fish, nuts or tofu per day. As a guide, a protein portion should fit into the palm of your hand.

A protein portion should fit into the palm of your hand

In the UK, on average we eat almost double the protein we need. This isn’t automatically a problem, but it depends where your protein is coming from. Meat-heavy diets have been linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and may also shorten your life. We should eat more peas, beans and lentils, two portions of fish a week, and eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat per day. 

Bowl of bean stew

How do I eat less animal protein?

Ease into meatless meals by going meat-free one day a week

Ease into meatless meals by going meat-free one day a week. Try replacing meat with foods like fish, dairy and eggs before swapping for plant-based proteins. If meat-free meals seem like a step too far, replace some of the meat in dishes like stews, chilli or Bolognese sauce with beans or lentils.

Do you need to eat more protein if you're an athlete?

It’s a myth that you need lots of protein if you are active. Athletes who train more than once a day should eat twice as much protein as the average adult, but most of us already do. It’s better to spread your protein over the day, combined with carbohydrates for energy, leaving the protein for muscle repair and growth. Germany’s Strongest Man Patrik Baboumian, Ironman champion Dave Scott, and British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead all avoid meat and are very successful.

Is meat-free always healthier?

The vegetarian option isn’t automatically a healthy choice. Mock meats like nuggets, veggie burgers and hot dogs contain protein but can be loaded with salt. Vegetarian options such as cheesy pastas or veg curries in creamy or oily sauces are often high in fat, saturated fat, salt and calories. To reap the health benefits, replace meat with more veg, beans, pulses, soy and wholegrains.

Improving your health and the environmentA green carbon footprint symbol

Eating less meat doesn’t just affect your health. Going meatless once a week can help reduce your carbon footprint and save resources like fossil fuels and fresh water. Giving up meat for just one meal could save the daily water usage of nine people.

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