All about protein foods

Protein is a nutrient your body needs to grow and repair cells, and to work properly. Protein is found in a wide range of foods and you must get enough protein in your diet every day. Here is all about protein foods.

 How much protein you need from your diet depends on your weight, gender, age and health.

What are Proteins made of?

Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are about 20 different types of amino acids that link together in different combinations. Your body uses them to make new proteins, such as muscles and bones and other compounds such as enzymes and hormones. It can also be used as an energy source.

Your body can make a few amino acids, there are 11 of these and they’re known as non-essential amino acids. There are 9 amino acids that your body cannot make, and they are known as essential amino acids. These need to be included in your diet so that your body can function.

What is the nutritional value of proteins?

The nutritional value of a protein is measured by the quantity of essential amino acids it contains.

Different foods contain different amounts of essential amino acids. Generally:

  • Animal products for example chicken, beef fish and dairy products have all of the essential amino acids and are known as ‘complete’ protein (or ideal or high-quality protein).
  • Soy products, quinoa and the seed of a leafy green called amaranth consumed in Asia and the Mediterranean also have all the essential amino acids.
  • Plant proteins for example beans, lentils, nuts and whole grains usually lack at least one of the essential amino acids and are considered ‘incomplete’ proteins.

People following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet must choose a variety of protein sources from a combination of plant foods every day to ensure they get an adequate mix of essential amino acids.

Types of Protein foods

Some food sources of dietary protein include:

  • lean meats – beef, lamb, veal, pork, kangaroo
  • poultry – chicken, turkey, duck, emu, goose, bush birds
  • fish and seafood – fish, prawns, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops, clams
  • eggs
  • dairy products – milk, yoghurt (especially Greek yoghurt), cheese (especially cottage cheese)
  • nuts (including nut pastes) and seeds – almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
  • legumes and beans – all beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, tofu.

Some grain and cereal-based products are also sources of protein but are generally not as high in protein as meat and meat-alternative products.

How to get your protein needs?

Your daily protein needs can easily be met by following the Australian Dietary Guidelines. The Guidelines group foods into 5 different food groups, each of which provides key nutrients.

The 2 main food groups that contribute to protein are the:

  • ‘lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans’ group
  • ‘milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives (mostly reduced fat)’ group.

As part of a healthy diet, the Guidelines recommend particular servings per day from each of the 5 food groups.

The human body can’t store protein and will excrete any excess, so eating small amounts at every meal is the most effective way to meet your daily protein requirement.

Proteins and exercise

Soon after exercising, it’s recommended that you have a serving of high-quality protein (such as a glass of milk or tub of yoghurt) with a carbohydrate meal to help maintain your body’s protein balance. Studies have shown this is good for you, even after low to moderate aerobic exercise (such as walking), particularly for older adults.

Very high-protein diets are dangerous

A very high-protein diet can strain the kidneys and liver. It can also prompt excessive loss of the mineral calcium, which can increase your risk of osteoporosis.

What is the importance of adding protein to your meals?

  • Promotes muscle growth and strength. Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue. This is especially important for people who are physically active or who are trying to gain muscle mass.
  • It helps to maintain a healthy weight. Protein can help you feel full longer and reduce your calorie intake. This can make it easier to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
  • Boosts metabolism. Protein helps increase your metabolic rate, which means you burn more calories even at rest.
  • Improves blood sugar control. Protein can help to keep your blood sugar levels stable after a meal. This is important for people with diabetes or prediabetes.
  • Reduces the risk of chronic diseases. Some studies have shown that a high-protein diet may help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

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