This January, we’re on the search for quick, accessible hacks to kickstart 2023 in the strongest way possible. Today’s nutrition kickstarter: how to eat more protein.
Over the past few years, we’ve become obsessed with protein. The global protein powder market size was valued at over £17 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach a whopping £34.4 billion by 2028. We’ve seen everything, from protein coffee (or ‘proffee’) to protein pop tarts and crisps.
If you’re looking to build muscle in the gym, getting enough protein is essential. And because of the marketing hype around the macronutrient, many new gym goers turn to food-tracking apps to ensure they’re consuming enough.
While that might suit some, tracking food for others can be triggering, mentally exhausting or become yet another thing to add to an already over-flowing to-do list.
So, how can you keep an eye on how much protein you’re consuming without falling prey to the more damaging aspects of food tracking?
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Why is protein so important for women?
An essential macronutrient made of amino acids, there are some very real benefits of protein for women. Our hormones – including oestrogen, the hormone required for several bodily functions including puberty, the menstrual cycle and bone strength – are dependent on it.
A high-protein diet has been shown to regulate our appetite, encourage collagen production to improve the appearance of our skin and assist with muscle repair, as well as maintenance and growth.
How much protein you need will depend on several factors, including your age, gender and activity levels. “The general guideline suggests that if you exercise one hour per day you need 1-1.2g of protein per kg of body weight per day,” explains registered nutritional therapist Marilia Chamon. If you’re strength training, you’ll need more protein to help your muscles grow and recover.
There are some additional cases when women will require additional protein, such as during pregnancy or breastfeeding; you need more of the macronutrient to support a developing baby.
Nutritionist Rory Batt explains: “Protein is the building block of life, and every aspect of that child will require extra protein to develop, as well as needing protein to support the everyday functions of the mother.”
Some studies suggest that the protein requirements of healthy pregnant women during early and late gestation are higher than current recommendations and that optimal uptake can range up to 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight per day. But as with anything, if you are pregnant, it’s worth chatting with your midwife or GP before making any dramatic tweaks to your diet.
Symptoms of protein deficiency
Having too little protein in your diet can lead to a number of issues, including:
- Increased sugar cravings
- Weakness and fatigue
- Loss of muscle mass
- Thyroid imbalance
- Impaired immune system (think: injuries take longer to heal)
- Decrease in growth hormone and oestrogen (which can also lead to hair thinning or falling out, fading hair colour and brittle nails)
Batt explains that a protein deficiency can contribute to several issues, including anaemia, which is most commonly caused by a lack of iron in the diet. Having periods is one of the most common causes of iron deficiency, as blood loss leads to a loss in iron-rich red blood cells: around 14% of people who menstruate are thought to suffer from anaemia related to low iron levels, according to the National Institute for Healthcare Excellence. Work out regularly? Then you might be more at risk: about 15-35% of female athletes have iron deficiency, compared to about 5-11% of male athletes, according to a 2019 review.
How much protein should you eat?
Chamon explains that we should try to evenly distribute our protein intake across all meals – aiming to eat a source of protein with each meal. In particular, we should prioritise having a high-protein breakfast as this helps to keep our blood sugar levels stable throughout the day and avoid energy slumps.
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, your body can’t store protein. You can carb-load for days before a marathon – and you’ll be able to run on that excess glycogen. But having a chunk of chicken on a Monday won’t mean you’ve got enough protein in the tank on Tuesday. Therefore, consuming protein every day is really important.
Batt suggests using the palm of your hand to measure out a serving. “A full palm roughly equates to one serving of protein,” he says.
Four hacks for eating more protein on a plant-based diet
We all know that animal-based foods such as eggs, fish, poultry, red meat and dairy are ’complete’ sources of protein. That means they contain all nine essential amino acids that we need to get from food in adequate quantities.
But it’s also more than possible to get protein from plant-based sources such as vegetables, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes. They typically contain significantly less protein per serving than animal-based foods. Most of these protein sources are known as ‘incomplete’ sources, which means they lack one or more essential acid.
Eat more grains like quinoa and buckwheat
Quinoa is one of the few complete plant proteins. An average serving (185g) of cooked quinoa contains approximately 8g of protein. It also provides more essential micronutrients, including magnesium, iron, fibre and zinc, than most common grains.
Buckwheat is also a complete protein, coming in at around 6g of protein per serving. Like quinoa, it’s packed with other essential micronutrients, including phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium and iron.
Combine beans and rice
“Eating protein from a variety of sources is an important part of a plant-based diet,” says Chamon. ”A good way to make sure you are getting all essential amino acids is by eating foods that complement one another.”
For instance, beans – a legume – and rice – a grain – are both incomplete proteins on their own. However, when they are eaten together, they form a complete protein because they contain different and complementary amino acids. While rice is low in lysine but high in methionine, beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. A serving (239 grams) of rice and beans provides 12 grams of protein as well as 10 grams of fibre, which is also essential for maintaining good gut health.
Choose a higher-protein plant milk
You can also switch out your milk for a higher protein alternative. Pea milk, which is made from pea protein, typically contains between 7 and 8g of protein per cup, depending on the brand. Soy milk is also a good option, offering up to 12g per cup.
Start with a shake
If meeting your protein requirement via diet seems challenging, then a high-quality plant-based protein supplement may be beneficial. Look out for blends that aren’t packed with sugar (in an ideal world, go for hemp or soy proteins that are single-ingredient and mix with milk and fruit).
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