Protein is essential for Weight-loss
Our bodies want to build and repair muscle mass even during weight-loss
Our bodies use protein to build and repair cells and tissues, and for this reason, it is often called ‘the building block of life’. Protein is an essential requirement for blood, skin, hair, nails, bones and muscles, and our bodies also use protein for vital body chemicals such as enzymes and hormones. Protein is what is called a ‘macronutrient’, which means that our bodies need quite large amounts to maintain good health.
Carbohydrates and fats are also macronutrients, but the difference between these nutrients and protein is that our bodies don’t store protein, so there are no ‘reserves’ for the body to draw from when levels start to run low. It is important that we include good levels of protein in our diets every day, and because our bodies require quite significant amounts, it is important to ensure that we opt for lean, healthy proteins rather than proteins that are loaded with saturated fat, chemicals, sodium and sugars. We need the most protein when we are growing (children and during pregnancy) and when we are repairing (injury or illness).
How protein helps with weight loss
The part that protein plays in effectively managing weight loss is vital. Protein helps us to feel fuller for longer – longer than both carbohydrates and fats. We know that protein helps to build muscle which in itself is a process that burns calories, but protein also burns the most calories during digestion. Pairing protein with carbohydrates also slows the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, which serves to curb those carbohydrate highs and lows that often result in food cravings and excessive calorie intake.
Lean Animal Protein
Animal proteins can be high in saturated fat, but it is perfectly possible to include healthy animal proteins as part of a balanced diet. Good sources include skinless chicken and turkey, low and non-fat dairy (avoid any flavoured yoghurts and drinks), fish and shellfish. Beef and pork don’t need to be completely avoided but make sure you stick to very lean cuts. The much-maligned egg is the most nutritionally complete of all protein sources – the fat level in eggs is moderate, but the saturated fat level is low. Cholesterol in eggs is high, but it is the cholesterol in saturated fat that raises cholesterol levels in our bodies. The NHS recommends 50g of protein per day for the average adult so in terms of lean animal protein this amounts to 1 egg and 150g of skinless chicken or 200g of fresh fish. Remember though that the more exercise you do, the more protein you need.
The benefits of plant-based proteins should not be underestimated. Plant proteins are a complete protein source (complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids), and they also lower blood pressure and offer a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. They are also cholesterol free and are a good source of fibre, whereas animal proteins contain little or no fibre. Beans, peas, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soy and lentils are all great sources of plant protein. Even high carbohydrate potatoes contain protein although not enough to be considered a complete protein. A daily plant protein intake could consist of 30g: almonds (5g), one large baked potato with baked beans (18g), 100g lentils (9g) and 100g chickpeas (19g). Contrary to popular perception, it is easily possible as you can see to get sufficient protein from a plant-based or vegan diet.
The dangers of too much Protein
Despite the benefits of protein on our total body health, it is important to understand the dangers associated with a diet too rich in protein – more than our bodies need and can use. Excess protein is stored as fat, so it can lead to weight gain over time. High animal protein diets that restrict carbohydrates (and therefore dietary fibre) can cause constipation, bad breath, dehydration and kidney damage. Consuming more than 2g of protein per kilo of weight is considered excessive, and for the average male that is represented by a bacon sandwich, a tuna salad and a 9oz rump steak. It is not hard, as you can see, to get into an unhealthy pattern of too much protein in the diet, but plant-based proteins will help to lower the risks associated with high protein diets.