Protein – how much do we really need?

Are we whey too obsessed?

One of the questions I am asked most frequently when people learn that I am vegan is ‘but how do you get enough protein?’. It’s an understandable query – the last few years have placed so much emphasis on protein as the answer to all our health and fitness queries, it’s hard not to believe that the more protein we eat, the healthier we are.

But is protein really the be-all and end-all of a healthy diet? How much protein do we really need and what are the best sources? Are protein powders good or a waste of money?

Contrary to popular belief, if you eat a wide variety of foods containing plenty of wholegrains, meeting your daily protein requirements as a vegan is not too difficult. One argument against veganism is that there are very few ‘complete protein sources’ (protein sources containing all nine essential amino acids we need in our diet. Whilst complete proteins sources are primarily found in animal products, such as meat and eggs, consuming a mix of plant-based foods means it’s possible to consume all essential amino acids in a vegan meal, e.g. peanut butter on toast, or rice and beans.

It was indeed once thought that vegetarian and vegan diets couldn’t supply adequate amounts of the necessary amino acids, but updated views suggest that “protein from a variety of plant foods eaten during the course of a day typically supplies enough essential amino acids when caloric requirements are met”.

Supplements or food?

Protein supplementation is big business – in the UK we spend more than £66m a year on sports nutrition products, and research suggests that around 25% of us have consumed some sort of sports nutrition product in the last year. Thanks to this market boom, there are plenty of great protein supplements out there (as well as some really, really bad ones), but protein is thought to be best consumed primarily in food rather than supplements for a number of reasons.

According to Euromonitor figures, which cover ready-to-drink beverages, protein powders and protein bars with a minimum of 20g of protein, the sports nutrition market has grown by about 160% since 2011. Another market analyst, Nielsen, said there was a 63% rise in sales of protein bars in 2015, compared with the previous 12 months, while Mintel figures, published in August, said there were 40% more launches of high-protein products in 2016 compared with 2015 – The Guardian.

  1. Protein powders lack vitamins, minerals and fibre that you get from eating food, which are important in every diet
  2. Many protein powders contain artificial chemicals, such as sweetener, which may have some negative health effects if consumed in large quantities, and taste kinda weird.
  3. Excess protein is either excreted in urine or stored as fat and can lead to weight gain. Just because shakes are drinks, it doesn’t mean they don’t contain calories. It is harder to overeat on a meal, which is usually much more satisfying.

Having said that, protein powders can make a quick and easy ‘snack’ after a workout, which is why so many people take them. If you struggle to hit daily calories, they can be a useful way of increasing them, but using them in lieu of a meal, for example, can lead to decreased overall nutrient intake, which is best avoided.

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How much protein should I be eating?

The recommended daily allowance of protein is somewhere between 0.8g and 1.2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Certain factors can push you towards the higher end of this, such as having a very active lifestyle, and older people also have higher protein requirements, but the majority of people are fine towards the lower end of the scale. In fact, some evidence suggests that reduced protein consumption is linked to increased longevity. However,there is little evidence to suggest that eating excess protein is harmful for an otherwise healthy adult, but excess protein cannot be utilised by the body, which is why protein supplements are possibly more fuss than they are worth: excess protein will go straight though you, so you’re literally flushing money down the drain!

So what are the best plant-based sources of protein?

Tofu

Tofu is derived from soya (another great source of protein) and can be cooked in many ways, taking on the flavour of whatever it is being cooked in. 100g tofu provides 8g protein and is also incredibly low in fat.

Oats

While you may think of oats as a carbohydrate, they are also one of the best vegan protein sources. Oats pack a protein punch at 10g protein per 100g! Buy whole or steel-cut oats rather than instant to get the full benefits.

Quinoa

Whist not extremely high in protein (4g in 100g cooked), quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that is a complete protein. Contrary to its appearance, quinoa is actually a seed, but makes a great alternative to other carbohydrates.

Pulses

Pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans are not only extremely healthy, but also cheap and easy to chuck into any meal. Chickpeas come in at 7g protein per 100g, lentils at 8-9g protein per 100g and peas at 7g per 100g. These should make up a large proportion of any plant-based diet.

Peanut butter

Although high in fats and therefore best consumed in moderation, peanut butter contains 25g of protein per 100g, making it also an excellent (and cheap) source of protein. When combined with wholemeal bread, it acts as a complete protein source (i.e. all essential amino acids are present).

Summary

What’s important to remember is that you don’t have to eat a steak in order to consume adequate amounts of protein. All foods contain a mixture of fats, protein and carbohydrates in differing ratios. Eating a varied and wholegrain-rich diet is a simple way of ensuring you are consuming enough protein (and vitamins and minerals) everyday.

Eating a healthy plant-based diet doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult, and even if you are extremely active, you can rest assured that you are probably consuming enough protein day to day.

For what it’s worth, I consume protein powder from time to time. If there’s a chance it’ll make my DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) better after an intense workout, I’m happy to try it. Having said that, when I run out I rarely bother buying any more, because I know the benefits are marginal. Some protein powders taste great though, so they’re nice as added flavouring in cereal, smoothies etc! Just bear the above in mind if thinking about purchasing some.

What are some of your favourite vegan high protein meals? Do you take protein powders?

Header image by Caylee Hankins featuring Rickel White, my boxing coach (who doesn’t take protein as far as I know)! Check them out and come and find me on Instagram.

Supplements – what, why and how?

I’ve been asked so many times what I think about X supplement and approached by brands to promote new bizarre sounding pills claiming to solve all your training problems. Whilst some of them may have tentative supporting evidence, a lot don’t. I know the supplements market is a total minefield, so here are some of the most popular supplements out there, and evidence for and against them. Obviously research is always coming out saying X, Y or Z – I’ve included a lot of reviews and meta analyses to try to get a balanced view of the literature but always think critically about what people are trying to sell you. Just remember: there’s no magic pill that’ll suddenly make you fit or give you the perfect abs. Training is hard whatever supplements you take, and quite often it’s worth spending the £50 you spend on supplements on a personal training session or a few books on nutrition. Knowledge is power (literally in this case!).

 

Protein

Our muscles are made up of protein fibres, some of which are broken down and rebuilt each time we exercise. Protein supplements/shakes claim to enhance recovery of muscles and aid growth, thereby improving performance. However, the level of conflicting information (and the price of a lot of the supplements) warrants a closer look at the evidence of their efficacy.

The evidence: Looking at muscle recovery time, muscle soreness and muscle growth, the data are inconclusive. Some meta-analyses state that here’s no evidence to suggest that muscle recovery is faster when someone consumes protein before, after or during a workout. However, a lot of the studies looked at small sample sizes, and measures of ‘muscle soreness’ and recovery are often hard to quantify. There is, however, fairly strong evidence to suggest that people in a calorie deficit may benefit from taking protein supplements, and that protein can reduce muscle catabolism (break down) following a workout. Verdict: if you’re looking to build muscle and/or are in a calorie deficit, protein may help you out. However, if you’re looking to reduce DOMS or decrease recovery time, the jury is out on whether protein can help. Because of the mixed evidence, it may be worth trying it out, especially if you’re vegan or struggling to fit in enough protein in your diet and wanting to train hard. Find what works for you!

 

BCAAs

BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids are amino acids with side chains. There are three types: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The supplements are sold to increase protein synthesis, purportedly increasing muscle mass (even while in a calorie deficit) when paired with the right training. When taken regularly, supplementation may decrease fatigue during exercise by reducing the increase in serotonin during exercise, which contributes to fatigue.

The evidence: BCAAs are one of the most heavily studied supplements on the market. In terms of exercise (there are many other uses of BCAA supplementation), there are two main factors looked at: increased exercise performance and reduced muscle breakdown. The former has much mixed evidence, mostly suggesting that BCAAs are unlikely to significantly improve exercise performance. The latter, however, has much more evidence supporting it. Multiple studies show that supplementation before and after exercise reduce muscle breakdown after strenuous exercise, reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

 

Creatine

Creatine is produced naturally in the body and stored predominantly in skeletal muscle. However, it is also sold as a supplement and marketed as helping to improve energy production for short duration, high intensity exercises. Theoretically, it is used by the body as a substrate to form ATP (the little packets of energy our body uses), and therefore supplementing with it means more ATP (energy) can be produced.

The evidence: Creatine is one of the more sound supplements on the market. According to one review paper, creatine is the most effective supplement to increase high-energy exercise capacity and muscle mass during training. As it turns out, of the 500 peer-reviewed papers looking into the effects of creatine, 70% concluded that it benefitted high intensity performance. However, when looking at more endurance exercises, the evidence is inconclusive, showing that if you want something for long-distance running, you should probably look elsewhere.

Nb/ There have been concerns that creatine supplementation may alter liver and kidney function, so if you have underlying conditions, creatine use should be avoided. In general though, it seems to be relatively safe!

 

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that is used by athletes to improve performance. Purported benefits include improving exercise capacity, building lean muscle mass and improving physical functions in the elderly.

The evidence: This supplement definitely shows some clear evidence that it can improve performance by reducing fatigue, thus making building muscle easier for those who take it. The benefits are seen most clearly in high intensity activities lasting 60s to 300s. However, the side effects are not widely studied but commonly experienced. If you’ve ever taken beta alanine you’ll probably be aware of the tingly feeling you can get, which is unpleasant at best. Few studies if any have looked into the safety of this supplement, and whilst it appears safe at recommended doses, take it at your own risk.

 

Electrolytes

When we exercise we sweat, losing salts as well as water. Salts are important for our muscles to function properly and too few of them cause the body to cramp up. If you’re into endurance exercise or workout in hot places, chances are you’ve considered taking electrolytes. Electrolytes help replenish the salts lost when we sweat, thus keeping our muscles working properly, and are provided in a way that doesn’t give our body too much of any one type of salt (e.g. sodium). Supplementation aims to reduce heat stress, muscle cramps and aid rehydration.

The evidence: electrolyte supplementation has been shown to reduce cramping caused by electrolyte loss (lots of sweating), but cramping can still occur due to other factors. It reduces heat stress, so if you’re working out hard in a hot country (e.g. racing or competing abroad) this may be something to consider. If you’re not working out in extreme heat for extended periods of time, electrolytes are probably not required for your everyday training schedule.

 

I hope this helps clarify some things for you!

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Choosing supplements to aid your workouts can be a minefield

Protein nicecream

This is where the future of guilt-free desserts is at. In case you’ve not yet become acquainted, nicecream is a wonderful invention that tastes like a mix between marshmallow fluff, ice-cream and banana milkshake – and it’s totally healthy!

I always make mine for 2, so this recipe is for 1 big portion or small portions for 2 (but realistically who wants to share). It can be made vegan really easily (use nut milk and vegan protein) and is a great alternative to a protein shake if you’re craving something sweet. I use a mix of Women’s Best cookies & cream/vanilla and unflavoured MyProtein whey.

Macros (per portion): C: 35.2g, P: 36.3, F: 2.9g

Ingredients:

  • 2 frozen bananas (frozen overnight)
  • 100ml milk of choice (use less if you want it thicker)
  • 3 scoops protein of choice
  • Vanilla essence (optional)

Add all the ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth.

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Carrot cake smoothie bowl

Anyone who follows me on instagram will know about my obsession with smoothie bowls. Easy to make, healthy and delicious, smoothie bowls are the future of easy breakfasts.

The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to what to put in your smoothie bowl. Favourites for me include frozen banana (always useful to freeze your bananas – without their skins – as soon as they become over ripe), protein powder, Huel (vanilla powder) and frozen spinach.

Here is a recipe for one of my favourite smoothie bowls – carrot cake! It’s super good for you and filling too, which is perfect for keeping you going until lunch.

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Ingredients:

  • Milk of choice (I use coconut milk)
  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 large/2 small carrots (no need to peel!)
  • 3-4 dates
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein (or unflavoured protein and vanilla essence)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Ginger powder, to taste
  • 1 tsp maca
  • 2 ice cubes

Blend, pour, eat! Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Carrot cake smoothie bowl, topped with desiccated coconut and currants