What is protein?
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 of them and nine are called ‘essential’ which means our bodies can’t make these aminos so we have to eat them – in fact only eight are essential to adults but there’s one extra that’s essential for children. The other non-essential aminos are cleverly made by the body.
These aminos are joined together in chains and when you eat the chains your body breaks the bonds between each amino, un-forms the chain and ferrets the individual aminos around your body. Some are used and some go into storage for a while in a place called the amino acid pool. It’s not a pool that sits in one place, instead the aminos sit around in cells all around the body, waiting for their opportunity to shine!
It’s not just meat, fish and dairy
Lots of people think of protein as being meat, dairy products, eggs and fish. In fact virtually all foods contain protein, even foods like pasta or cauliflower; it’s just that animal proteins have all the amino acids and plant proteins have some.
By combining a variety of plant foods you get all the aminos, nature is clever like that.
Anyway, you might think that because animal protein has the full set that it’s what you need to eat the most of. Wrong!
Vegetable proteins bring with them a far greater range of nutrients than animals. Importantly they provide the absolutely essential fibre that we need to function healthily, particularly for gut health which essentially affects overall health. On top of that, though not quite as importantly, plant proteins are lower in fat and calories.
When I write the Nutrition for Everyone plan each week I take all this into account and I also advise our member to choose meal options in this order:
- Beans, pulses, tofu
- Non-oily fish and shellfish
- Oily fish, eggs and nuts
- Poultry and softer cheeses
- Red meat, hard cheese
How much protein do I need and how much per day?
You can eat all those things in a week but by far the greatest proportion should come from the plant proteins, and I recommend that you only eat oily fish, poultry and meat a couple of times each through the week (and remember that’s across all meals).