Protein – the super nutrient? Discussions from a Twitter Chat

The @AfNutr Twitter Chat was talking all things protein last week. It was a thought provoking disucussion – protein has become a bit of a star over the last few years. It is added to lots of regular foods to add a bit of a health halo to them and protein snack bars and shakes seem quite the thing to be seen to consume on the old social media accounts. It did start with the bodybuilders and athletes but now it is those proclaiming to be super healthy.

There seems to be an acceptance that protein is some kind of super macronutrient – better than fat, better than carbs, a macronutrient complete wth superhero cape. Is it? In short, no. But there is a story to tell.

Let us start with sports nutrition. We have learnt some useful stuff about protein. Research from the world of sports nutrition has helped to understand a bit more about when we eat protein in relation to activity and how much to eat in one meal. That these things are important for muscle repair and generation for professional athletes working to be strong and lean. This learning is important beyond sports nutrition.

A two hour window after activity seems to be the most effective time to consume a protein rich meal or snack for the protein to be incorporated into muscle tissue. So there is some science behind the protein shakes that guys/girls at the gym drink? Yes, however, if you ask a sports nutritionist (according to one on our Twitter chat) for most people a drink of milk would be fine. You don’t have to buy the sports shakes. Athletes and those training hard might have some additional benefit from formulated shakes but if you are in competition it is best to get advice from a trained sports nutritionist as some of the additives and ingredients added to shakes could prove problematic with the authorities. The authorities are strict and their list of approved ingredients and additives is to be followed unless you want to risk getting in trouble! The general advice from our participants was to use food first rather than protein sports products. Many of them are predominantly whey protein – which comes from milk!

This learning can be applied to other groups. As we get older, muscle mass is lost so it seems that our ability to convert protein from food into regeneration and repair of muscle becomes less effective. This is a big issue. With loss of muscle comes loss of strength and this slowly turns into frailty, risk of falling and affects independence. And it starts earlier than you would expect. In our forties in fact. Don’t be too alarmed – it is slow and steady but by maintaining activity and consuming protein in a smart way we slow down this phenomenon. As it is more and more likely that we can reach our 80s and 90s, maintaining muscle as we age is one little thing we can do that helps make those later years be independent and active. And it seems that it is never too late to start making improvements.

This can also be true of people who are ill or recovering from injury or an operation. Protein requirements go up because the immune system needs it and repairing damaged tissue does too. Appetite can be low and so can activity – many people who have had a bout of poor health or injury can see a drop in muscle mass. So these principles can help speed up recovery and get people feeling stronger sooner.

How do we consume protein in a smart way? Include protein rich foods at every meal – many of us tend to concentrate protein rich foods at our main meal of the day and this is particularly true of older people who have smaller appetites and smaller meals. Also, to be active – even a good walk or a bit of gardening, some pilates or yoga, a local bike ride – it doesn’t have to be some full on cardio session at the gym. After activity have a protein rich snack or meal within that hour or so after activity. So go for a walk at lunchtime, have a glass of milk after the gym, have a cheese sandwich or peanut butter on toast or humus and crackers after that stint digging in the garden.

Another reason that protein is deemed a super macro is the popularity of low carb high protein and the success that this movement have had in communicating how effective this can be for weight loss. There is no magic going on here. Protein is one of the more satiating macro nutrients. Satiating means satisfying or filling – if we have a protein rich food as part of a meal then we are likely to go longer before needing to eat, less likely to snack, which is going to help any weight management plan you have. But so does fibre – which you get from carbohydrate rich foods and bring lots of other benefits to the table.

Protein is an important macronutrient. So are fats and carbohydrates. Protein has had better PR and is less confusing (although if I was to give you a run down on the amino acids and the combining of foods to ensure meeting all the requirements for essential amino acids it may not seem so simple any more). There are no bad protein stories. Stories of protein rich foods ‘causing’ cancer like the recent bacon story are disconnected with the protein contained in them, protein remains innocent of any foul play. Fats and carbs (and the foods containing them) seem to be much more easily vilified and cause more confusion – views that are extreme either good or bad, vying for attention, not well explained, often not backed up with science or with cherry picked science.

Most of us get enough protein, indeed exceed our protein requirements. The key message is that different protein foods bring different benefits so a variety is great. If you are veggie, food combining is important to get complete mix of the essential amino acids – keeping this simple beans and toast, milk and cereal, rice and beans. Traditional vegetarian meals tend to have these matches anyway. Spreading protein across the day and having protein rich snacks or meals after activity helps us to use protein most effectively and this is important as we get older or if we are recovering from illness. Sports protein shakes are not essential, they look snazzy and somehow better than boring regular food but food first is the way to go unless you really are an athlete but get advice from a sports nutritionist (not the guy at the gym selling the product!)

There was also a little discussion on innovation within food manufacturing. There is a shift towards more sustainable protein sources, as a result alternative protein sources will be seen more and more – we are already starting to see foods with insect protein on our shelves. New proteins in the food chain could be a problem for those with allergies – there is evidence that people with seafood allergy should be careful with insects as there could be cross reactivity (i.e. likely that the body treats the insect protein in the same way as the seafood protein).

Innovation in the protein enriched products could be useful for certain population groups, acceptable protein rich snacks for older people or those recovering from illness, particulalry those with small appetites, could be fantastic addition to their diet. But in general, is there a need for protein enriched foods? Are they healthier than regular foods? Most people get adequate protein in their diets and so don’t need protein enriched foods. With the move towards more plant based eating then filling the gap for protein rich snacks that are not based on dairy, eggs or other animal products is certainly a growing sector.

Is there any problem having too much protein? If we are adding protein to our diet beyond what our body needs then generally that protein, that we can’t store for later, will generally get broken down and used as energy. So some extra calories there. If someone has an undiagnosed kidney function problem then too much protein could put stress on the kidneys but for most people is thought not to be a problem. The issue is not lack of protein for most people – the research seem to point to eating protein more evenly across the day and getting activity in the day so more protein is used in the muscles.

If we are eating lots of protein rich foods to the expense of other food groups then this may be an issue, people consuming lots of red and processed meat are thought to have an increased risk of bowel cancer but is this also related to the fact that those consuming high meat diets are often the same people with lower intakes of fibre, fruit and vegetables which we know seem to be protective.

If you want to read some more on protein and find some great links to research and articles as well as read comments from lots of registered and associate nutritionists then find @AfNutr on Twitter and follow the #NutrPRO, the chat will be archived very soon and then you can find the chat on our website.

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