First, it was protein balls and shakes. Now even some of our bread is enriched with it! But do we actually need it? Dietitian Brooke Longfield has the answers.
Protein is being billed as the star ingredient in many of our everyday food items these days. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that we all need to be eating more of it. Let’s look at the facts…
Protein is key to feeling full
Here’s the good news: Protein helps control our appetite and gives that satisfying feeling of fullness.
Our body can’t store protein, so it needs a fresh supply each day. Health experts believe that our appetite is regulated by hitting a daily fixed target of protein from our food.
So, if we have a diet that includes a lot of starchy, low-protein foods (think bread and sugary snacks), we’ll need to eat a lot more food in order to reach that all-important protein target.
By contrast, if we eat more protein-rich foods — for example, meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts — we then hit that target more quickly, triggering satiety and satisfaction.
Given protein’s ability to control our appetite, choosing to eat foods rich in protein is helpful for weight maintenance.
One of the world’s largest diet studies found that people on a high-protein diet that included low-GI carbs were more likely to keep weight off after 12 months compared to people on a much lower protein diet.
What else does protein do?
Protein is essential for building muscles, and having a greater amount of muscle mass helps to speed up our metabolism.
Protein supplements and snacks have grown in popularity since a number of studies found that eating protein within half an hour of exercise can assist with muscle growth. But a glass of milk or a tub of yoghurt is just as effective as expensive protein balls, bars and drinks.
How much do I need each day?
Not as much as you think! The average Australian adult eats almost double the protein that our body needs if we are not very active, according to the latest National Health Survey.
Can I have too much protein?
More is not always better. Anything more than what we need gets stored by our body as fat. A very high-protein diet puts strain on our kidneys and liver which can be dangerous, especially if there are signs of pre-existing kidney disease.
But the main problem with focusing excessively on eating high-protein foods is that we’re paying less attention to other foods, such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain carbohydrates, which are equally important to our long-term health.
When should I eat protein?
In Australia, we focus on eating large portions of protein-rich steak and chicken at our evening meal.
We should, instead, space out our protein intake through the day. Making protein a part of breakfast and lunch, rather than just dinner, can help prevent the urge to snack on starchy carbs such as crackers and chips.
And be aware that a healthy portion of red meat is about the size and thickness of your palm (roughly 100g raw weight of meat), and a bit more if you’re eating fish.
If you find that your tummy is rumbling between meals, however, try one of these high-protein snacks:
small tub of unsweetened reduced-fat yoghurt
handful (30g) of mixed nuts
fruit smoothie made with reduced-fat milk
slice of cheese on a wholegrain cracker
Are protein balls and bars ok?
Many of these are made from highly refined protein extracts. Marketed as ‘high-protein’ snacks, they are also often loaded with artificial additives, fat and sugar (or artificial sweeteners) to help them taste good. So, they can be high in kilojoules.
Just as highly processed carbs aren’t healthy choices, we should be wary of products made from processed protein. Instead, aim to eat whole foods which are naturally rich in protein, such as nuts, eggs and milk, because they provide additional nutrients essential for our good health.