A healthy diet requires large amounts of protein regularly - which is why protein is often referred to as a “macronutrient”. Proteins are made from “building blocks” known as amino acids. A regular supply of high quality amino acids helps your body to function normally.
In addition to normal function, protein is needed for healthy muscles, skin, hair, bones and hormones. Even your brain needs protein for optimal concentration. It’s a key component of every cell in your body, too.
Protein is a vital part of a healthy diet - particularly if you exercise often and increase your physical activity levels - because a lot of your protein intake is stored in your body as muscle.
Who’s at risk of protein deficiency?
Plant-based foods containing protein are often not a complete protein source when compared with animal proteins. This is because plant-based foods are low in certain types of amino acids.
It’s a protein’s amino acid composition - as well as its digestibility - that determines protein quality. That’s why those who are most at risk of protein deficiency tend to be vegetarians and vegans.
Also, as you age, your body composition changes and you experience a reduction in total body protein. However, if your diet is lacking, or if you don’t consume an adequate amount of protein-containing foods, your protein requirements may be low.
A lack of protein intake has been associated with:
- Growth failure
- Loss of muscle mass
- Decreased immunity
- Weakening of the heart and respiratory system
- Poor concentration and “brain fog”
- Memory loss
The most common symptoms of protein deficiency include:
- Muscle wastage and shrinkage
- Poor or slow growth in children
The benefits of supplementing with protein
While protein supplements used to be associated with bodybuilders, they’re becoming increasingly common among people who want to maintain a healthy weight. They’re also popular among people who are looking to maintain optimal health and wellbeing.
Protein supplementation is commonly in the form of protein shakes, which are a solution for people who want and need more protein in their diet.
Derived from food sources like milk, beef and rice, protein shakes are used as a meal replacement - meaning they’re consumed instead of regular food. As they’re quick to prepare, they’re often favoured by people who are time-poor but still want a nourishing meal or snack.
You might consider supplementing with protein shakes if you’re looking to:
- Provide nourishment after exercise
- Improve your body’s protein metabolism
- Help develop lean muscle mass
- Encourage weight loss
- Nourish your body with essential nutrients
- Help improve your metabolism
Protein and weight management
Consuming a high amount of protein is linked to feelings of fullness - which can lead to improved weight management and fat loss. Yet it’s the type of protein you eat that’s crucial to your weight management. While red and processed meats are high in protein, they’re also high in fat and can lead to weight gain when consumed in large amounts.
Your body needs to work harder to convert protein into glucose for energy than it does to convert carbohydrates or fats into glucose - which is one of the reasons why a high-protein intake is associated with weight loss.
Studies suggest that a high-protein diet is associated with an intake of less calories - which in turn leads to weight loss as well.
Diets high in protein have also been linked to decreased hunger and appetite compared with diets that are high in fat and carbohydrates.
Protein can help to:
- Reduce hunger
- Reduce feelings of fullness
- Improve weight management
- Improve fat loss
- Reduce intake of calories
- Promote weight loss
Protein and disease prevention
There is growing evidence suggesting that the type of protein you consume can lower your risk of certain diseases.
Consuming a high amount of red and processed meats is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease - and some cancers. So getting your dietary protein from alternate sources can help to reduce your disease risk.
A high quality protein intake can:
- Reduce your risk of certain diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers)
- Control your blood sugar levels
- Lower your cholesterol
- Help maintain overall health and wellbeing
Protein, fitness and vitality
Protein encourages healthy muscle repair after you exercise. During a strenuous workout, your muscle tissues are torn and need time to recover. Protein can aid your muscle recovery.
Protein shakes are often used for muscle recovery after a workout because they’re easily digestible and are absorbed by the body faster. Some research has also linked post-workout protein intake with fewer medical visits, less muscle soreness and an enhanced immune response.
Protein can help to:
- Assist post-workout muscle recovery
- Enhance fitness, vitality and wellbeing
Who can benefit from taking protein shakes or supplements?
Many protein supplements and shakes also contain a variety of other vitamins and minerals - so they’re specifically formulated to give your body a nutritional boost as well as meet your protein requirements.
A protein shake or supplement can benefit if you’re looking for:
- High quality protein sources
- Low-fat sources of protein - many protein-rich foods are high in fat and can increase your risk of disease
- A nutritional boost - protein shakes tend to be enriched with key vitamins and minerals, helping you to meet the recommended daily intake
- Convenient sources of protein - shakes are quickly available and can be made in a matter of minutes
- Cost-effective sources of protein - servings of protein shakes tend to be very cost effective when compared with foods containing the same amount of protein
- Sugar-free sources of protein - protein shakes tend to contain pure protein, with no sugar or cholesterol
Foods containing protein
Protein is found in the following foods:
- Fish and seafood
- Beans and peas (legumes)
- Nuts and seeds
- Milk and dairy products
- Fruits (in small amounts)
Does protein have side effects?
If you consume too much protein in your diet, there can be some side effects. Weight gain, kidney problems, nutritional deficiencies, dehydration and intestinal upsets are associated with a very high protein intake over time. Very high protein diets have been linked to osteoporosis as they cause an excess of calcium to be excreted in urine.
Certain types of proteins have different side effects, too - so you should always discuss your protein requirements with your healthcare professional.
Protein medicine interactions
Certain types of protein (eg whey) can lower blood sugar, reduce blood pressure and interact with blood thinning medications. Always discuss protein supplementation with your healthcare professional before you commence.
How much protein do you need?
You typically need around 1 gram of protein for every kilo of your bodyweight. You may need more if you’re an athlete, regularly active or are someone who experiences chronic stress.
Protein contraindications and cautions
Protein shakes and supplements should be avoided during pregnancy and breast-feeding as there is not enough evidence to support their usage.
If you’re taking prescription medications or have any specific health conditions, discuss your protein requirements with your healthcare professional.
Why take a protein shake or supplement?
It’s important to meet the recommended daily intake of protein to ensure your body functions at its best.
Getting the right amount of high quality protein in your diet will help you to:
- Reduce feelings of hunger
- Promote feelings of fullness
- Manage your weight
- Promote weight loss
- Reduce your risk of certain diseases
- Support your fitness and vitality
- Enhance your overall health and wellbeing