Protein is having a bit of "a moment". It’s fast become the must-have nutrient from a marketer’s perspective, popping up in everything from bread to chocolate bars. Thankfully Dietician with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, Louise Reynolds, joined Seán O’Rourke this morning to demystify protein. What is it, why do we need it and where can we get it?
Louise began by addressing the current obsession with protein and whether its nutritional value justifies the hype.
"People everywhere are seeing labels appearing on foods saying ‘high-protein’. Normal foods that they’ve been eating for years all of a sudden are bringing out a ‘high-protein’ version. It would seem as though ‘oh maybe we’re not getting enough protein or we don’t know where to get protein’.
In fact, we are all getting more than enough from the regular foods we’re eating. We don’t need to be going down this very ‘high-protein’ route."
Seán wondered whether the association of protein with a healthy diet and weight-loss might be behind this new trend. Louise agreed, but explained why the weight-loss connection is a myth.
"It has the same number of calories per gram as a gram of carbohydrate. You know people who are trying to lose weight are terrified of carbohydrates and run a mile from them. Well, a gram of carbohydrate has four calories and a gram of protein also has four calories."
Louise went on to explain that protein is valuable to people who are losing weight in order to help them build and retain muscle. Very restrictive diets can cause people to lose lean muscle mass. This is important because weight reduction should be focused on losing excess fat not muscle.
Chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, and nuts are good sources of protein, but many of these aren’t suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Louise, however, is confident that people who don’t eat meat or dairy can still consume enough good quality protein in their diet, they just need to mix it up a little.
"There are 20 amino acids, nine of those are essential, so you must get those from your diet. We talk about good quality protein as being fish or lean chicken because they tend to contain all of the essential amino acids.
"When it comes to the vegetarian foods there’s a bit more protein combining that has to go on. For example, baked beans will contain one range of amino acids, they won’t contain all, but wholemeal bread contains others, so if you have beans on toast, you’re combining them and making a complete protein."
One group Louise feels really needs to keep an eye on their protein intake are older people. A natural part of ageing is a reduction in muscle mass which can have a knock-on effect on mobility and independence.
"As well as keeping active as you get older… at every meal have a look and see am I getting a good source of protein here?"
You can hear Louise’s advice in full on Today with Seán O’Rourke above.