What exactly is protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient that's needed for the body's growth, function and repair. It also provides energy and helps fight disease. Protein is actually composed of chains of smaller 'building blocks' called amino acids: there are around 20 amino acids in total, nine of which can only be sourced from food.
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How much protein do I really need?
According to Department of Health guidelines, the recommended daily protein intake for adults is 0.75g per 1kg of body weight. So if you weigh 60kg (around 9st 7lbs), you'll need approximately 45g protein each day. Or if you prefer to bypass the maths, just remember that – on average – men should aim for roughly 55g while women need 45g.
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Will I need more protein as I grow older?
People over the age of 65 may benefit from consuming a little more protein – between 1g and 1.2g per 1kg of their body weight – to help minimise age-related muscle loss, according to a 2013 study paper. However, there are notable exceptions – anyone with severe kidney disease should avoid extra protein, for example – so it's important to talk things through with your doctor before making any long-term changes to your diet.
Do I need extra protein when I exercise?
It depends how much you exercise – but probably not. Weight-lifters and endurance athletes may need a little more to repair and rebuild their muscles, which is why there's such a big market for post-workout protein supplements. If you do a regular amount of physical activity – such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming – to keep fit and healthy, however, simply aim to stick to the guidelines above.
High protein foods
Meat is an excellent source of protein, as well as vitamins and minerals. But do opt for lean cuts and skinless poultry to cut down on saturated fats. Bear in mind, too, that an estimated 21 per cent of bowel cancers each year in the UK are linked to eating red and processed meat. So try to steer clear of processed meats as much as possible, and don't consume more than 70g red meat in a day. Another tip? If you're over 65, order your steak well done: older people find it difficult to absorb all the protein they need from under-cooked meat, say researchers from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.
Fish is another important source – and oily fish, such as salmon or fresh tuna, in particular has been found to have numerous health benefits. The Department of Health suggests aiming for at least two portions of fish each week, one of which should be oily.
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Are eggs high in protein?
Yes, eggs are rich in protein: one medium egg contains about 6g protein. For maximum benefits, make sure you use the whole egg: while egg whites may have had all the good press in the past, the extra nutrients in the yolk appear to play a vital role in muscle-building, according to a recent study from the Universities of Illinois and Toronto.
Eat less meat: protein alternatives
Milk and dairy produce, such as yoghurts, are high in protein and bone-building calcium –but do watch the fat content. And go easy on the cheese! Most cheeses contain a large amount of fat, and can also be very high in salt.
Instead of turning to cheese for your protein fix, try upping your intake of nuts and pulses. A small handful of unsalted nuts provides roughly half your daily protein requirement – as well as other essential vitamins and minerals. Pulses include all beans, peas and lentils, and count towards your five-a-day: if you buy tinned varieties, choose ones with no added sugar or salt.
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Finally, it's worth remembering that only two plant-based foods – quinoa and soya beans – contain all the amino acids our bodies need. So if you're sticking to a vegan diet, it pays to eat plenty of one, or ideally both, of these.
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What happens if I eat too much protein?
Consuming an excessive amount of protein can put a strain on the kidneys and may impact negatively on bone health over a longer period. It can also cause nausea.
So stick to healthy, balanced diet – with a small amount of protein in every meal – and you shouldn't have any problems.
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