The media is constantly reporting new research that claims carbohydrates are bad and fats are good, or vice versa, or that we should avoid a certain kind of food in order to stay healthy. But the vast majority of sources agree that protein is important. Eating protein rich foods has a variety of benefits, from helping to lose weight and increasing muscle mass. But these are on a large scale. On a cellular level, our hair and nails are made mostly of protein, so this nutrient is important for those reasons. But protein is also needed in almost every part of the body, from bones and cartilage to skin and blood, and is used to make enzymes and hormones.
The human body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw from when it needs this macronutrient. However, this doesn’t mean that eating a diet very high in protein is the best choice for everyone. In the short term, eating a high protein, low carbohydrate diet means the body converts from burning carbs for energy to burning fat. When fat is broken down, small bits of carbon called ketones are released into the bloodstream as energy sources. This has a tendency to suppress appetite and increase the body’s excretion of fluids, thus decreasing water mass as well. This all sounds good so far, but this sort of diet typically leads to an excretion of excess calcium, which can lead to a short-term deficiency and, if the diet is continued for long periods, the risk of osteoporosis in the future.
So how much protein do we actually need? Several sources claim between 0.5 and 0.7g of protein per pound of body weight per day; or between 50 and 70g per 100lb. The Institute of Medicine offers the following figures:
- Babies – 10 g/day
- Children – 19-34g/day
- Boys aged 14-18 – 52g/day
- Girls aged 14-18 – 46g/day
- Males over 18 – 56g/day
- Females over 18 – 46g/day
- Pregnant or breastfeeding – 71/day
You should get between 10% and 35% of your daily calories from protein, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Whole eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet. A large egg contains around 6g of protein, but if you don’t mind losing some of the taste, egg white is almost pure protein.
Almonds are an unlikely choice, but they contain a massive 21g of protein per 100g, or 6g in a single serving. Although they are high in calories, they also contain a host of other benefits including fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Chicken breast is one of the most popular protein-rich foods, particularly if you eat it without the skin. A roasted chicken breast without the skin contains 53g of protein – a whole day’s worth for the average adult – in under 300 calories.
Oats are a particularly healthy grain, offering fibre, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B1 and other nutrients. A serving of raw oats also contains a surprising 13g of protein.
If you have a preference for cheese, cottage cheese is very low in fat and calories. However its loaded with nutrients including calcium and vitamin B2, and a 1-cup serving contains 27g of protein in under 200 calories.
Other great protein sources include broccoli (3g per serving), lentils (18g per serving), pumpkin seeds (5g per serving) and peanuts (7g per serving). All of these choices are vegan-friendly, making them suitable to include in almost any diet.