How much protein do we really need?

From cereals to snacks to that smoothie you wolf down in the morning, our foods are increasingly supercharged with protein. We check the labels and when we see “with added protein” we assume we’re helping our body. But do we really need to dose up on protein?

“Proteins are the main building blocks of the body and are required for the formation of muscles, tendons, organs and skin as well as for the synthesis of hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters,” explains dietician Claudine Ryan of Nutritious Living in Bellville. Proteins are made of amino acids, and some of these are made by your body itself, while others – called essential amino acids, must be included in your diet because your body cannot make these.

“Animal foods are usually high in protein, with all the essential amino acids that we need,” says Claudine. That’s why eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese are usually on our breakfast menu, but do we really need protein for our first meal of the day? “Protein slightly boosts your metabolism which is a good start to your day. It also contributes to greater satiety levels which helps to regulate your appetite and suppresses the hunger hormone called ghrelin, which means it might help you to also eat less later in the day,” says Claudine. Studies suggest that breakfasts should contain up to 20g of protein for an optimal effect. 1 egg contains about 6 grams of protein, 200ml yoghurt contains 8g of protein and 30g cheese contain about 7g of protein.

With this in mind, can eating protein in the morning help you lose weight? “In general, the body uses slightly more energy to metabolize protein, which means proteins at breakfast can boost your metabolic rate. Although the effect isn’t large – 420 kJ per day, it still contributes to other weight loss strategies,” she says. However, calories do matter, so eating loads of protein without making sure that your calorie intake is controlled, will not make you lose weight.

Claudine recommends that those who do moderate exercises up to four times a week can include one protein plus one carbohydrate after exercise to replenish and prevent muscle breakdown – but anything beyond this is not necessary. “250ml skim milk is a good example of a food that contains one carbohydrate plus on protein,” she says.

While athletes' protein needs are greater than that of non-athletes, they're not as high as commonly perceived. So, if your goal is to increase your muscle mass with muscle training or if you do strenuous or intense exercise, you might require more protein. She recommends the following:

• If you are an athlete or highly active person currently attempting to lose body fat while preserving lean muscle mass, a daily intake of 1.5-2.2g/kg bodyweight would be a good target.
• If you are an athlete or highly active person, or you are attempting to lose body fat while preserving lean mass, then a daily intake of 1.0-1.5g/kg bodyweight would be a good target.
• If you are sedentary and not looking to change body composition much, a daily target of 0.8g/kg bodyweight and upwards would be a good target.

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