Most of the Focus field staff (aka ridiculously awesome ninja rock stars) know by now that I tend to talk a lot about ways to incorporate fruits and veggies into our clients’ diets. While I maintain that fruits and veg are super important for their nutrient-density and role in bowel health, and that most of us do not eat enough of them, today I want to talk specifically about protein. I also want to share some cool research that I recently learned about at the Dietitian’s Association annual conference.

What is protein and what does it do?
Protein is one-third of the macronutrient trifecta, the others being carbohydrate and fat. Protein has a range of functions in the human body; it provides structure for our muscles, bones, skin and organs, and plays a big role in our immune systems by acting as signaling molecules, delivering messages from one part of the body to another. It is also a crucial part of metabolism, or the process of converting food energy into usable energy.

What foods contain protein?
Protein can be found in both plant-based foods and animal-based foods. Animal meat and cheese is about 30% protein, while tree nuts and seeds sit at about 20%. Fruits and vegetables are only about 1-2% protein, with the notable exception of legumes (aka beans), which are somewhere around 10%. This is one of the reasons why you will find me raving about how wonderful beans are. Not only are they an excellent source of dietary fibre and vitamins, but they are also packed with protein, too!

Have a look at the table above to compare protein concentrations of different foods. Obviously, we need to apply context to this chart; you might get 30 grams of protein from eating 100 grams of steak, but it is unlikely that you are going to sit down and eat 100 grams of almonds.

How much protein does my client need to eat? What about me?
A person’s individual protein requirements depend on a few different things, such as age, gender, body composition, activity level, and whether they are ill or injured. The average, healthy adult needs about 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, per day. For example, a healthy 70kg woman would be aiming for 56-70g of protein each day. Most Australians, especially those who eat meat, do not have any problem meeting their protein needs each day. For Focus clients who have issues meeting their protein needs, I will provide guidance to staff in the form of the client’s Nutrition Care Plan or meal plans. A good example of this is our client who lost a lot of weight during the initial stages of dementia- for him to regain weight and muscle in a healthy way, his protein needs are higher than usual. This is why he has an Up & Go with his breakfast in the morning, and snacks on protein-rich foods such as eggs, nuts, and yoghurt throughout the day.

So, what’s this cool research you mentioned?
Dr. Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney presented some research on protein intake in non-human primates. The research found that primates leveraged protein intake over intake of fat or carbohydrates. In other words, they would eat just enough food to meet their protein requirements for the day, and then they would stop. So, if they ate mostly foods that were low in protein, they needed a lot more food to reach their daily protein requirement, and therefore greatly exceeded their calorie requirements for the day. Alternatively, when they ate mostly foods that were high in protein, they needed a smaller overall quantity of food, and therefore consumed less calories than they needed to reach their daily calorie requirement.

While we have to be careful when applying non-human research to a human context, this suggests that a high-protein diet may be an effective weight-loss strategy; this is the rationale behind the increasingly-popular CSIRO Total Wellbeing diet. It also makes sense from a satiety perspective; we know that protein increases the time it takes for food to empty from your stomach, making you feel fuller for longer.

To read the published research, click here.

So that’s it? Eat a ton of protein and I will lose weight?
Like anything in health and nutrition, it is not that simple. Firstly, the study described above also found that only the primates who consumed significant amounts of plant-based protein extended their lifespans. That certainly does not mean that animal protein is bad, but is does suggest that we should aim to meet our protein requirements through both plant and animal sources. Animal products also tend to be higher in saturated fat, which is linked to increased risks of heart disease. For this reason, we should also generally choose low-fat animal products such as lean meat (5% fat or less) and low-fat dairy.

It is also important to get enough of the nutrients you need from other foods, such as fibre from fruits and vegetables and vitamins from whole grains. This is why it is important to have a balanced diet and regularly include foods from all five food groups.

Is this a roundabout way for you to tell me to use more beans?
Kind of! I do love talking about beans. People wishing to increase their protein intake in a healthy way might want to consider the many health benefits that are offered by beans. As mentioned above, they also have tons of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Keep in mind, though, that a drastic increase in bean consumption can cause uncomfortable bloating and gas, so make sure to step up your intake slowly. How you feel is a good indication on whether you are going too fast.

Too long, didn’t read
Healthy sources of protein such as lean animal meat, low-fat dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds are an important part of a balanced diet, and play a role in weight management. Legumes (beans) are a great choice for enriching your diet with additional protein, as they are also a great source of fibre and essential vitamins and minerals.

Click here for a yummy lentil & vegetable soup recipe. You can use any veg you want, making it a perfect recipe for using up any older produce that is still lurking in your refrigerator.