The Truth About Protein: How to Get Enough Protein at Every Age nutrition

IEating protein is not negotiable. Like carbs and fats, it is a macronutrient that the body needs in relatively large, regular doses (compared to micronutrients like vitamins and minerals). But our protein needs vary throughout our lives according to age, gender, activity level and more. In fact our needs can be highly individual and therefore easily miscalculated, especially when, says dietitian Linnea Patel, “there are conflicting messages about how much protein we should be eating.” On the one hand, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that we exceed our daily protein recommendations, which scientists say may shorten our lives. Patel, on the other hand, says: “I see in my own clinical practice that about 80% of my clients are not eating enough.” The booming protein industry, with its bars, pouches and shakes, leads us to believe that the more, the better. So how much protein should we eat?

What is the official advice?

The recommended daily protein intake for healthy adults is 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.8 grams if you're in the US). This means, according to the British Nutrition Foundation, the average woman should eat no more than 45 grams of protein a day, while the average man should eat 56 grams — about two portions of nuts, tofu, fish or other protein source. Your ideal protein portion should fit in the palm of your hand. There are plenty of non-animal foods that are high in protein and rich in other nutrients and fiber: beans, peas and lentils, soy products like tofu, not to mention a plethora of nuts and seeds. You can find out how much protein individual foods contain by checking the packaging or consulting a website such as the British Nutrition Foundation. Some math may be involved.

In the UK, the average daily intake for adults aged 19 to 64 is 76 grams per day, and is above the recommended level in all age groups. However, Patel says these guidelines are being reviewed, and “we as physicians are trying to encourage the government to change the way they measure them”. For starters, bodies have gotten heavier since these recommended averages were established. Based on today's body weight, you might be looking at 5 grams more.

Furthermore, these suggested intakes were determined using “nitrogen-balanced” studies, which, says Patel, represent “the minimum protein we need to prevent malnutrition.” But preventing malnutrition, he argues, is “completely different from thrive mode”.

A new technique has been developed to establish protein requirements, charmingly called the Indicative Amino Acid Oxidation Method. “It suggests a minimum protein intake, which is about 1 gram to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, not only to prevent malnutrition but also to thrive mode.” According to this metric, national protein consumption levels do not appear problematic. “As a woman in her 40s, as my hormones decline, I will lose muscle mass,” says Patel. 1 gram of protein will help me prevent this, not 0.75 grams.”

However, the new method is not a license for people to consume more protein.

What happens if you eat too much?

“There's undoubtedly a sweet spot for protein,” says Giles Yeo, professor of molecular neuroendocrinology at the University of Cambridge and honorary president of the British Dietetic Association. “And the big reason is we can't store it.” So any protein that is not needed to build or repair tissue will be converted to fat, releasing nitrogen as a byproduct. “If this process is taken to extremes, it puts a strain on our kidneys.”

Furthermore, most of our protein consumption still comes from animal products, which often provide more saturated fat than vegetarian sources, and meat increases the risk of many cancers.

What if you don't get enough?

Everyone knows protein is essential for replenishing and building muscle, but that's not the half of it. “It's needed to produce and transport hormones around the body,” says Patel, “and it's important to make sure you have enough of the right building blocks for hormones, especially as you get older, and the production Slows down.”

Protein also affects mood regulation. Different types contain different amino acids, about 20 of which are found in the human body, and some, says Patel, are “building blocks for neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that help regulate your mood and memory”.

Protein also helps with appetite and blood-sugar regulation. “It's a very complex molecule,” says Patel, “but at a basic level, your body has to work quite hard to break down amino acids, so if you include protein in a meal, it breaks down the carbohydrates eaten with it. Slows down the absorption of. , releasing it into your body more slowly. Eggs on toast will keep you full longer than jam on toast.

Part of the problem with ultra-processed foods is that they contain less protein, “and if you don't have enough protein but have access to other foods, you end up eating more,” says Yeoh. This is the “protein leverage hypothesis” of Australian obesity expert Professor Steve Simpson. “Their argument is that the low levels of protein in some of the foods we consume is one of the causes of the persistent obesity problem,” says Yeo.

And there's more, Patel says: “Fifty percent of your bone structure is protein. Therefore a low protein diet weakens your bones. And then, of course, because I'm vain, I want my skin, my nails, and my hair to look good. When you go a little low in protein the first sign is that your nails become brittle. Your skin starts to hurt.” Because what does our body use to make collagen? It's amino acids, silly.

What if you are a child?

Patel and Yeo agree that if you're able to feed your children a balanced diet, you don't need to be concerned about protein levels. “Growing children can probably take in a little more protein because they're used to it,” Yeo says, “but they're smaller than adults, so their portions should still reflect that.” The above official guide was created in 1991 when average body weight was lighter, but they start at 14.5 grams (about two large eggs), 19.7 grams (add a small portion of peas) per day for children one to three years old . Four to six, 28.3 grams (a cup of cooked soybeans) up to 10, then low 40 to 14. The genders then split and by 15, girls need slightly more than the adult women's figure of 45.4 grams, while for boys this recommendation sits just below adults' figure of 55.2 grams.

How do you know if you are getting enough food?

As someone who works with everyone from endurance athletes to menopausal women, Patel knows firsthand that protein needs depend on factors like age and activity level. “It's an individual thing,” she says. “I may need something more than you, even genetically.” You can work with a dietitian to establish your sweet spots, or try learning on your own. She generally advises adults to aim for an intake of 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day and start monitoring muscle mass. The gold standard method is a DEXA scan, which uses low-dose X-rays, but most of us don't have access to that. The next best thing, she says, are the body composition scales you get at the gym. “They're not as accurate as Dexa, but if used properly they can give you clues over time, such as if you're weighing yourself at the same time every day, not after a workout.”

What happens if you exercise too much?

Even if you're fit, it's not about overdoing it and “eating a whole chicken a day,” says Patel. For heavy-hitting rugby players, the protein recommendation is “about 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, and they are at the top of the American College of Sports Medicine's recommendation.” So will people training for a 10km race or marathon, or just regular people who workout regularly, need to consume more protein, or does this only apply to elite athletes? “Absolutely not,” says Patel. “You have that range from one to two grams and I would say one is where you start. For most gym goers, and I would say for people who are doing a little running, it's 1.2 grams, but it depends on your age. And then as you become more active, you move up in that order, but make sure you boost your protein intake during activity. “There's no point having Nando's chicken for dinner if you've had a run in the morning and haven't had some protein for breakfast.”

What if you are pregnant?

Again, we're all individuals, but Patel says protein needs during growing kids “don't have to be excessive.” In general, you shouldn't eat for two – you should just eat your healthy balanced diet. “Your calories go up to 300 in the third trimester alone.” And when you do, there's no need to make a concerted effort to eat more protein, as long as you stick to that healthy, balanced diet.

What happens when you reach middle age?

This is the ideal time to prepare for healthy aging, when hormone production begins to decline – estrogen and progesterone in women and testosterone in men – and when sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) begins. “We need to make sure we're getting enough protein from middle age onward,” says Patel, perhaps more obviously for women. The official guide supports this by increasing a woman's recommended average daily intake to 46.5 grams of protein. This is the time when we also need to do strength-building exercises to maintain muscle mass.

Do you need more or less as you age?

Walter Longo is a professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, and an expert on the epidemiological longevity data that support not exceeding official protein guidelines. But he also says that since the late 70s we need to increase protein by 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day.

Using Patel's favorite metrics, you might already be consuming that, so it would be a bit much. “As you age, you become less efficient at using protein than you were when you were younger,” says Patel. And that's why older people need a little more to slow the natural decline in muscle mass. An older person trying to stay active may need 1.4 grams per kilogram.

Patel says the best way to consume all of these is to spread your intake throughout the day, including some protein at each meal and snack. Roughly 20 grams of protein comes from “two slices of seeded toast with two eggs, or two slices of wholemeal toast with a spoonful of peanut butter and a latte, or 125 grams of Greek yogurt with some pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top.” Is visible. If cheese is your thing, a cup of that with an apple is a 20g protein snack, and according to meal-ingredients, “a small chicken breast or half a large one, 75g of smoked or poached salmon or a cup of cooked lentils.” “.

In his view, eating enough protein is important to maintain quality of life into old age. “If there's a functional determinant of how well you live, it's how much muscle you have,” she says. “That will determine whether you can climb stairs or get up from the couch. Or not. Age-related muscle loss can have serious effects on metabolic health and mobility.”

Should you change your protein sources?

Without getting too technical about it, different protein sources provide different amino acids, and we need the whole gamut to function well. So protein doesn't always mean steak or hummus or whatever your favorite is – you need to eat a wide range. “My overall recommendations would be to include some protein at each meal and to diversify your sources,” says Patel. This is partly why she doesn't recommend protein shakes, etc. “Some protein shakes work for some people as long as they don't become a substitute for good, proper nutritional habits,” says Patel. “Because with chicken, you're not just getting protein, you're also getting magnesium, vitamin B, zinc and iron. In a protein shake, you're just getting protein.”

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