Quality protein: Why it’s essential for a balanced diet

Neglecting quality protein can result in a diet dominated by carbs, which can lead to spikes in blood sugar and increased hunger. Avoid falling for protein-advertised products and unnecessary protein supplementation and stick to quality protein sources like fish, eggs, meat, tofu, nuts, yogurt, and lentils.

Approx read time: 5 mins
Eggs, salmon and avocado on toast. Quality protein.

Introduction

While you don’t need to worry about protein as much as the food industry and nutrition-bros would have you believe, protein IS a critical component of your diet.

It’s not unusual these days to see people majoring on carbs and neglecting quality protein. They might have porridge or cereal for breakfast, or toast with jam/marmalade/honey/nutella (low protein meals). Then a biscuit or 3 mid morning (low protein), a sandwich and crisps at lunch (unlikely to provide a great deal of protein, but might), with crisps and/or fruit, maybe more biscuits in the afternoon and a plate of pasta for dinner where the amount of pasta is far greater than the sauce.

Quality protein

A quality protein refers to a source that contains the essential amino acids your body needs to function. Essential amino acids are those that the body can’t produce on its own and must be obtained from what you eat. Quality protein sources are typically:

  • fish
  • shellfish
  • eggs
  • meat
  • poultry
  • game
  • low fat cheese like cottage cheese
  • tofu
  • nuts
  • yoghurt
  • chickpeas
  • beans
  • lentils

Beans and other pulses are incomplete proteins so need to be combined with grains to make a full protein.

Ideally you’d have quality protein at all meals. For example: Eggs and one toast for breakfast, salad with beans and feta for lunch, salmon with potatoes and veg for dinner. Snacks could be nuts, kefir/yoghurt or half a chicken breast with some cherry toms, or a tin of fish with some cucumber.

If you major on carbs not only do you miss out on protein’s essential functions but you are constantly spiking blood sugar and driving more hunger.

Spicy fried chickpeas with tomatoes and yoghurt. Chickpeas are considered a quality protein.
Spicy fried chickpeas with tomatoes and yoghurt. Chickpeas are a quality protein.

Some stuff that protein does in your body

  • Makes hormones.
  • Makes enzymes such as digestive enzymes.
  • Acts as a carrier that transports stuff around the body and through the gut and through cell walls.
  • Makes the structural bits of you – tissues, muscle, collagen etc.
  • Makes skin, hair and nails (poor protein intake affects these big time).
  • Makes your muscles fire so you can move.
  • Repairs things that break!

What NOT to be taken in by

  • UPF and other food that advertises itself as containing or boosting protein – like protein bars, protein shakes, protein Mars Bars and protein-god-knows-what else.
  • The need for protein supplementation. You can get all you need from food. Protein powders etc often come packaged with a whole load of nasties like fillers and sweeteners.

Protein and menopause

Eating the right amount of protein can be very beneficial for peri and menopausal women.

  • The tendency is for fat gain during and after menopause and protein can help to control appetite and cravings for sugar and carbs. 
  • There’s also a tendency for worse control of blood sugar and, again, protein steadies blood sugar. 
  • As mentioned above, protein makes hormones and the right amount of protein supports hormone production and maintenance.
  • Menopause brings greater muscle loss and protein helps maintain muscle mass. 
  • Menopause affects mood, adequate protein helps steady mood by steadying blood sugar and supporting neurotransmitters.

Protein deficiency

Protein deficiency in the developed world is rare as hen’s teeth, even amongst vegetarians and vegans. That’s because ALL food contains some protein, even a cauliflower!

However, people tend to large-it on carbs and eat poor quality proteins. Shifting the balance to fewer, and quality carbs alongside quality natural proteins is very wise.

It’s generally not something to worry about TOO much, in terms of needing to eat all sorts of ‘everything with added protein’. It is simply important to eat quality protein at most meals. It’s also important to concentrate on the overall quality and appropriate quantity of food that you eat.

How do you get all the protein you need from a plant-focused diet?

Looking at getting the full set of amino acids (protein’s building blocks) from plant foods simply means consuming grain foods and pulse foods with each other or at least in the same day, along with other complete plant sources such as tofu, edamame, tempeh, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, some seeds, eggs, dairy. Pulses are lentils beans, chickpeas and so on.

Does WHEN you eat protein matter?

When it comes to protein timing, that’s not really anything to stress about either. When we eat a protein food like some meat or tofu, our gut breaks it down into its component amino acids and they ‘float about’ until they’re needed.

You’ll always have some floating about if you eat every day and your body parts will call on the necessary amino acids to do whatever it needs to do. That might be to make a hormone or enzyme, or to make blood cells, or to repair/grow muscle or to make your hair and nails, or to – well basically keep every bit of you intact and working!

The main reason to include protein right after exercise is to do with satiety. But of course it always gives you those aminos so it’s good whatever time you eat it. Your body does a lot of its repair work overnight but that doesn’t mean you have to eat a ton of protein at 11pm! It’ll have enough in storage to call on.

How much do you need exactly?

Well, how long is a piece of string? Our protein needs vary according to our state of health or injury, our age, whether we are pregnant, our sex, height and weight. You name it. But you can see a general guide in this post.

Does weight training increase the requirement?

Not hugely. Not for recreational resistance training anyway. If someone was REALLY active and doing lots of heavy weight lifting, or frequently lifting weights, then yes.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.