Protein for the everyday consumer

A macro trend that shows no sign of slowing

In the last few years, the growth of interest in protein and in particular high protein diets, protein fortified foods and protein supplements has been at a pace few thought possible. And it shows no sign of slowing. It is almost as though ‘high protein’ has become a surrogate measure of ‘health’ in the eyes of industry and the consumer.

Sometimes, the best way to understand the merits of these trends is to, just for a moment, dissociate it from nutritional science. This helps us to determine how much protein we really need and to what extent should an everyday consumer be proactive about their protein intake throughout the day. This is the key debate. Protein use for those engaged in sport, particularly resistance exercise, have a higher requirement for protein. However, how much does a ‘normal’ consumer really need?

To prevent deficiency or promote optimal?

The amount of protein an individual requires per day is often quoted according to well recognised guidelines; 0.8 g/kg body weight, or 55-75g per day. For reference, a chicken breast is ~20g, an egg ~7g and 100ml of semi skimmed milk is 3.5g. In truth, this is  easy to achieve for the majority, and is what is frequently used to suggest high(er) protein intakes are not needed. However, these guidelines are based on preventing deficiency, rather than promoting health.

It is not the purpose of this article to provide a scientific review, but if you do take time to delve into the literature you would see overwhelming support for a higher daily intake, likely closer to 1.1-1.2 g/kg body weight per day. This is based on the importance of protein, of course to overall functioning of the body, but also to support the growth and maintenance of muscle. This has nothing to do with growing big muscles in the gym for aesthetic reasons, this is about facing up to an inevitable challenge of maintaining muscle mass as we age. An increasingly important public health focus.

Total intake versus frequency of intake

Even at the higher protein intake suggestions, it is important to acknowledge that these can be easily achieved and through the consumption of high quality food. However, the total daily intake does remove focus on the importance of the frequency of protein intake throughout the day. Our body is made of protein, and we ‘turnover’ (breakdown and rebuild) at a rate of 1-2% a day (!). Further, we don’t store protein in the body, so the consumption of protein regularly (every ~4 hrs.) throughout the day is shown to be as important than total daily intake. In practical terms, this amounts to three or four high quality protein consumption moments in the day. Currently, it is clear that in the Western world protein intake is poor in the morning, ok at lunch, and in excess in the evening. So, whilst total daily intake is well achieved, the quality and frequency of intake leaves a lot to be desired.

A nutritional changing of the guard

There is no doubt that communication of nutrition for general health is changing, and reflects a more balanced approach to the consumption protein and fat alongside carbohydrate. In simple terms, being “carbohydrate clever, protein rich” is an increasingly adopted mantra which reflects a food first, sugar reduced, improved frequency of protein approach to food consumption. In fact, when compiling your plate at home, a high-quality protein source is often the first thing on there, subsequently supported with fruits and vegetables. As subtle as this seems, this is quite a meteoric shift in nutrition terms and highlights the importance of everyday consumers increasing their sensitivity to improved or better protein intake during the day.

Is a food first approach sufficient?

In theory, absolutely. The everyday consumer can and should achieve their protein intake (daily and frequency) from food alone. This should be the message an industry should always drive. However, the habits and behaviours of everyday consumers do not always allow this to be possible and in this these situations, high protein products play an important role. In fact, if we are going to improve the habits of everyday consumers we can’t just tell them to improve, we have to offer them solutions.

Making better decisions more often

Protein remains an important component in the everyday diet, and whilst the total amount we consume on a daily basis is less of a concern, the quality and frequency of intake remains an area many need to improve. This doesn’t and shouldn’t be confused with high protein diets for sport, or muscle growth, but proactive protein consumption at regular intervals throughout the day. This amount to following sensible guidelines of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with a snack somewhere in between.

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