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One thing about our protein eating habits we’re getting all wrong – Sydney Morning Herald

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Protein-rich food products are suddenly everywhere. So how do nutritional guidelines differ for different genders and age groups?

Susie Burrell

While carbs occupied most of the diet headlines throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, more recently, protein has held the honours of the most interesting of nutrients.

Not only is protein gifted with a general positive association, but the food industry has also quickly embraced our obsession with protein.

The body requires a minimal amount of protein to function each day.
The body requires a minimal amount of protein to function each day. iStock

Now we have protein-rich versions of most of our favourite supermarket foods including yoghurt and bread, or even pizza and ice-cream.

So, what is it about protein that makes it a super nutrient, and do we really need more of it?

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What is protein?

Protein is one of the four energy-giving nutrients alongside carbohydrate, fat and alcohol, and is primarily found in animal-based foods including dairy, meat, eggs and fish as well as in smaller quantities in nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. The body requires a minimum amount of protein to function each day. Protein has many key roles in the body including helping to make new cells, for muscle growth and repair, to build connective tissue including skin and bone, to carry oxygen around the body and to make the enzymes that digest food.

Why is protein so hot right now?

The positive association between protein, muscle mass and metabolism is just one of the reasons we are now seeing protein added to many of our favourite foods. Unlike fat and certainly not carbs, which people often try to reduce their intake of, protein is something we are encouraged to consume more of and because humans love to eat, we are very happy to be encouraged to eat more of a particular type of food.

Steaks with warm Asian mushroom salad and snake beans.
Steaks with warm Asian mushroom salad and snake beans.Jeremy Simons
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How much protein do we need?

In countries in which there is an abundance of calories available, an inadequate intake of protein is rare, and most Australians easily achieve the minimum recommended daily intake of 0.75g (women) and 0.84g (men) of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 60-80g for the average adult. What is more common is a disproportionate intake of this nutrient throughout the day, with less consumed at breakfast and lunch, followed by overly large portions of animal protein at night. For optimal muscle assimilation, blood glucose regulation and metabolism, ideally we should consume protein regularly throughout the day rather than overly large amounts at any one time.

The science of protein and weight

Scientifically, one of the key reasons that protein as a nutrient has garnered so much interest is thanks to the “protein leverage hypothesis”. This theory proposes that humans are biologically programmed to prioritise protein intake, and as such will continue to seek out food until adequate amounts of protein have been consumed. It is argued that environments in which high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods dominate Western dietary intake somewhat dilute overall protein intake, which may partially explain the growing obesity epidemic.

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Adam Liaw’s chicken diane.
Adam Liaw’s chicken diane.William Meppem

Do we need more protein?

There is growing evidence to show that higher protein intakes – 1-1.6g per kilo of body weight or up to 30 per cent of overall calorie intake – are beneficial for a number of different population groups. Specifically, for anyone with the goal of gaining lean muscle mass, intakes of 1.5-1.6g per kilo, or 100-120g each day are ideal.

Increasing protein intake for women throughout the peri- and post-menopausal years too appears to be especially important to help prevent muscle mass loss and optimise metabolism, as the significant body composition changes during these years negatively affect metabolic rate. For this group, intakes of at least 1-1.2g of protein per kilo, or upwards of 80-100g of protein each day should be the goal.

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What are the best sources of protein?

While there are plenty of foods that you can now find in protein-enriched varieties, you can’t go past the real thing when it comes to optimal absorption and nutrient intake. Natural sources of protein from animal foods, if you choose to consume them, are the best dietary sources, with lean meat, fish, eggs and dairy offering a full of complement of amino acids aiding absorption on the body.

If you prefer more plant sources of protein in your diet via soy, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains, you need relatively large amounts to achieve your daily protein targets or intakes of 20-30g of protein per meal and 10-20g per snack.

Miso and ginger salmon tray bake.
Miso and ginger salmon tray bake.Katrina Meynink
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Not all protein is equal

Whilst there is a growing range of protein-rich foods including wraps, pizza bases, bars and snacks, keep in mind that in many cases these foods are ultra-processed, and even though you may be getting more protein, the protein is often via overly processed forms. For this reason, if bumping up your protein is the goal, you will always be better to seek out natural sources in foods rather than eat more pizza simply as it is made on a higher protein base.

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