Protein myths & facts

Everywhere you look today you see products with added protein advertised to us as some kind of new super food. There are a lot of myths surrounding protein and how much we actually need each day, so I thought I’d address some of the myths and add some facts so there’s no more confusion.

What are the symptoms of protein deficiency?
Protein deficiency in countries like Australia and New Zealand are quite rare, but they do occur in individuals who have trouble with digesting food such as the elderly as well as those having restrictive diets or certain medical conditions. Protein deficiency can effect brain development in children, can compromise the immune system as well as affect the gut mucosal function (digestion and absorption of nutrients and defending against bacteria).

Symptoms of protein deficiency include:
– Stunted growth in children (a common sign in malnutrition)
– Loss of muscle mass, especially in the elderly
– Fatty liver
– Increased risk of fractures
– Skin, nail and hair problems, especially brittle nails, flaky skin and hair loss. These symptoms can also be caused by other medical issues so it’s important to see a Dr to find the reason behind it. These symptoms only occur in extreme protein deficiency.
– Oedema which is a classic symptom seen in kwashiorkor (puffy, swollen skin)
– Increased risk of infection and increased severity of infections (decreased immunity)

Do I need a protein supplement?
Chances are the answer to that question is no. We consume protein throughout the day, we just don’t always realise the food we eat contains protein. The oats, banana and milk of our breakfast, the peanut butter on our sandwich at lunch, the almonds of our afternoon snack and the broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach and chickpeas we had at dinner all contain protein, just different amounts. This all adds up during the day, so if you eat a varied, healthy diet the risk of you being protein deficient, even if you eat a plant based diet is incredibly small.

So what does this mean for all our added protein foods on the supermarket shelves? You don’t need them. Even protein shakes, the average person doesn’t need to drink them. Most of us are already getting more than the recommended daily intake for protein, and in fact a diet high in protein can come with some risks.

Risks of a high protein diet:
While it’s important we all have protein in our diet, there are also risks of having a high protein diet. These risks include:
– Constipation (protein is low in fibre and in diets that also restrict carbohydrates constipation can become a serious problem)
– Diarrhoea (due to the lack of fibre and if a lot of your meals are heavily processed)
– Weight gain
– Kidney damage (for people with pre-existing kidney problems, a high protein diet can lead to kidney damage)
– Increased risk of heart disease
– Calcium loss

How much protein do I need to eat?
Most people tend to think we need to eat a lot more protein than in generally recommended. It’s important to note however that our protein needs change over time and increases slightly as we get older. For the average adult female the daily recommended intake is 46g, while for men its 64g. Once we get to about 70 years and older, that intake increases slightly to 57g for women and 81g for men.

For children the intake is much less and which is why we don’t recommend added proteins in their diet like protein smoothies. Children aged 1 to 3 years only need 14g of protein a day and those aged 4 to 8 only need 20g a day. As they get older, they protein intakes increase slightly, with girls aged 9 to 13 years requiring 35g and boys of the same age requiring 40g. The recommended protein intake again increases slightly in the 14 to 18 years age group with girls recommended 45g a day and boys 65g a day. After that the intake for men decreases slightly to the recommended 64g a day. Protein requirements also change depending on whether you’re breastfeeding. For more information on the different recommended daily protein intakes for different age groups, pregnancy and breastfeeding, head over to the Nutrient Reference Values website for Australia and New Zealand.

Good sources of protein?
There are plenty of good unprocessed sources for protein we can include in our diet including plant based options. Good protein sources include:
– Grass-fed lean meats like beef or poultry
– Dairy products like cottage cheese and Greek yogurt
– Legumes like chickpeas, lentils and other beans
– Soy products like tofu
– Nuts and seeds like sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, cashews, macadamias, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and sesame seeds
– Eggs
– Wild caught fish (it is becoming more difficult to find sustainable, wild caught fish, so make sure your fish is from a sustainable source if you choose to consume fish)

Remember, you are eating different food throughout the day, so you shouldn’t be eating your daily recommended protein intake in one meal. Spacing out your intakes also helps better with digestion and absorption.

If you’re worried about your protein intake you can always contact a University qualified nutritionist (like myself) to have a look at your daily food intake to calculate if you’re getting the right amount of protein in your diet.

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