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Guest Post: The Benefits of Protein by Helen West

Protein is hot topic at the moment with people buying into protein-based products a lot more than they used to, then on the other hand there are people saying that you don’t need that much….it can all be very confusing!  The messages around the benefits of including more protein in your diet is something we have wondered about so asked Helen West, UK Registered Dietitian, writer and healthy living blogger, a few questions to get to the bottom of it!

The Benefits of Protein

First of all, who is Helen West?

Helen West is UK Registered Dietitian, writer and healthy living blogger who is is passionate about promoting healthy bodies and happy minds through a balanced lifestyle.  She’s also co-founder of the nutrition events company The Rooted Project (www.therootedproject.co.uk) You can read more of her thoughts about nutrition health & wellness on her blog Food and Nonsense (www.foodandnonsense.com).

What are the benefits of having protein in your diet? 

Proteins are the “building blocks” of our body. They are used for all sorts of things from building muscles, organs and DNA, to facilitating some of the chemical reactions that keep our bodies functioning.
The amount of protein you need is actually quite individual.  It depends on all sorts of things like your age, activity levels, the amount of muscle you have (or want to have) and your current state of health.
Generally speaking, most people in the western world are thought to have more than enough protein to prevent them being deficient.
However, eating a bit more protein can have some benefits, especially if you are trying to lose weight or alter your physique.
This is because protein fills you up more than other nutrients (fats and carbs) and it may also increase your metabolism, helping you burn more calories in the short term.  It’s also really important for preserving your muscle mass which helps you burn more calories day to day.
What’s the difference between good quality animal protein and plant-based protein?
Proteins are made up of chains of smaller nutrients called amino acids. The main difference between animal and plant proteins is the types of amino acids that you find in them.
In total there are around 20 amino acids which are used as the building blocks of proteins. Some of them, you are able to produce in your body and others you can’t.  The ones you can’t are known as “essential” amino acids and you need to get them from your diet.
A lot of animal proteins are “complete”, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids you need. On the other hand, plant proteins are generally “incomplete”, meaning they contain some, but not all essential amino acids.
That said, plant proteins usually come with lots of other beneficial nutrients, which means that diets high in plant proteins have some great health benefits.
What’s the relationship between weight loss and protein?
There are two theories of why having a slightly higher protein intake can be beneficial if you are trying to lose weight.
First of all, protein is really filling, so including a source of protein in your meals and snacks can help you feel fuller for longer.
Secondly, protein may have what’s called a “metabolic advantage”.  This means it uses up more energy to digest and process than other nutrients and so causes a temporary boost to your metabolism, helping you to burn a few more calories.
If you are restricting your calories to lose weight and exercising, including more protein in your diet could also stop you from losing muscle when you lose weight.  This is useful as having more muscle keeps your metabolic rate higher.
A lot of people think that having more protein will bulk you up – what is the myth behind this?
I think this myth stems from the love of protein in the world of body building etc.  The truth is to build muscle and “bulk up” you have to be eating more calories than you burn off and doing a lot of training.  Simply eating more protein won’t cause you to gain muscle.  However, if you eat more calories than you burn off (which includes over eating protein), you will gain weight.
There’s a lot of talk about having protein pre and post workout, does it matter if you don’t have protein after a workout?
The protein pre-workout advice stems from the practice of “nutrient timing” for optimal recovery between events and workouts for athletes.
If you are doing high amounts of physical activity (particularly if you are training more than once per day) and trying to gain muscle, the timing of your protein can be important.  This is because you want to make sure that you maximise your recovery between sessions and make sure you are meeting your protein requirements.
For most of us however, the timing of protein pre and post workout isn’t as important as simply getting enough protein.
The most important things are focusing on the quality of your overall diet, making sure you spread your protein intake through the day and meeting your protein needs.
If you want to have protein after your workout though, that’s fine! Just make sure it fits with your overall nutrition requirements and you’re not just taking on unnecessary additional calories.
Can you have too much protein?
When it comes to food and diet, you can definitely have too much of anything, even plants and vegetables if they are replacing other required nutrients in your diet.
There has been concern in the past that eating too much protein could be harmful to your kidneys and bones.  However, if you have healthy kidneys, these concerns are unfounded.
The protein recommendations for an average person are 0.8 grams per Kg of body weight per day. However, if you are regularly active you may need a bit more (up to a maximum of 2 grams per Kg of body weight per day for athletes with large amounts of muscle and intense workout schedules).
People who are trying to lose weight may also benefit from slightly more protein at around 1.6 grams per Kg of body weight per day.
What’s the best type of natural protein powder if you want to up your protein intake?
Most people don’t need a protein powder as it’s perfectly possible for most of us to get our protein from food.  That said, they can be a good choice for some people who want a convenient way to include more protein in their diet. Some protein powders, like whey protein, can also be useful for weight loss.
If you’re interested in how to pick a protein powder and if you need one, I’d recommend this great video from the dietitian Nichola Whitehead at Nics Nutrition http://nicsnutrition.com/protein-powders-explained/
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