It’s easy to get confused on protein. So many foods, from Snickers to Weetabix, have some added in. But how much do we need, and from what sources, and if we are exercising a lot do we need more?

Protein is essential to body tissues, we need it for growth and for the healthy maintenance of muscles and bones. Current guidelines suggest we need around 0.75g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily with about 10 percent of our calories coming from protein.

So if I weigh 72 kilos then I will need 54g of protein which is equal to two eggs (12g), a chicken fillet (25g) a big handful of nuts (7g) and a chunk of cheese (10g).

If I weigh 60kg I will need 45g of protein which looks like a greek yoghurt (10g), a chicken fillet (25g) and some quinoa (10g). That’s not even adding in the snacks you may eat during the day which will bump up your intake. So you can see it is really easy to get adequate protein from normal sources.

If you lift weights you may need more protein

Some studies have shown that protein can help the body to deal with the demands of intensive workouts. Strenuous physical activity causes tiny tears in muscles that protein will repair and at the same time create more muscle mass.

Last year researchers from McMaster University in Canada showed that eating higher amounts of protein during periods of weight training produced slightly bigger and stronger muscles in adults. The study also said that eating a lot more protein produced no additional muscle gain. If you are doing a lot of training in the gym you will need more to support your body mass. This is around 1.2 g per kilogram daily if you are quite an avid gym-goer. The research calculated that for people who lift a lot of weights there is a limit to the amount of protein that is beneficial, which is around 1.6g per kilogram of bodyweight per day. After that the protein is not going to do anything for you.  

No more steak, steak , steak

Back in the old days when most of us didn’t even know a vegan there was a perception you could not get complete protein, one containing all of your essential amino acids, from plant sources. Today everyone is eating chickpeas or at least can point them out in a shopping basket. Soy and quinoa are both complete proteins and if you combine certain foods – like rice with lentils – then you will get all the amino acids then.

Current health guidelines suggest you vary your protein sources and Dr Conor Kerley is a dietitian who recommends this to maximise different minerals and vitamins and also to limit saturated fat which is in animal products and not in plant protein such as beans, lentils, legumes.

“Try to add some plant protein – beans, lentils, quinoa – these are filling and nutritious adding fiber and minerals as well as protein”, he said.

Dr Kerley, who is a lecturer in Technological University For Dublin, advised against protein bars saying that they are not necessary and often represent a heavily processed food.

Whole Grain carbs are fine

Although everyone on Instagram seems to be on the low carbs bandwagon some research is suggesting that diets too high in protein can have a negative effect on our gut flora and there have been some links to high protein intake and colon cancer as well as type 2 diabetes. Also if we only eat protein and no carbs, which are our main source of energy, then when will we have enough power to workout at the gym or go to that spin class after work?

Dr Kerley points out that not all carbs are the same and we should include some of the good ones.

“Carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta, oats, barley are much more filling and provide more nutrients than refined varieties and there is usually no need to avoid these foods”, he said.

So in summary it’s probably best to ditch the processed foods with protein added and try to vary your sources leaning more towards beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, with some dairy or either calcium fortified alternatives, lean meat and fish.

So you see it is easy to get all your protein requirements, even if you need a bit extra to support for your training.