KNOW YOUR MACROS (1/3): PROTEIN - The Secret Booster For Your Energy, Resilience and Focus
What Are Macronutrients?
One of my clients asked me the other day: “Nina, is rice a protein?”. Yes and no. A great opportunity to set the stage for some nutrition basics. Enter macronutrients.
Macronutrients are the big three groups we sort food into - protein, carbohydrates and fat. Now, before I dive into what they are and how they should be combined for a balanced meal I want to make one thing clear:
There is hardly a natural food out there that is 100& protein, 100% carb or 100% fat. Let’s take the modest garlic for example. One clove of about 3 grams contains 1 gram of carbs, 0.2 grams of protein and about 1% fat. So which category do we put it into? And what is the rest of the clove made up of? Garlic contains an array of hugely beneficial vitamins and minerals. And according to research 80% of its chemical components haven’t even been cracked yet! Therein lies the magic of eating natural foods (rather than taking single nutrient supplements) - they work wonders for our bodies without us completely understanding how.
What Is Protein?
So back to protein. Let’s keep it short and simple: imagine it as a long chain of organic compounds (“amino acids”). Protein makes up about 20% of your body and has so so many jobs. It mobilises your metabolism, replicates your DNA, builds the structure of all of your cells and carries other molecules around like a tiny taxi. The difference between individual proteins is which amino acids they link in what order. It's what makes the protein fold into a specific 3D structure that determines its function.
Why Is Protein Important For Me?
Well, you are what you eat. You are literally made of protein from your heart to your brain, your bones to your muscles, your lungs to your kidneys, and your arteries, veins, skin, hair, nails, and more.
Firstly, all those proteins stacked and floating around in your body get used up, through constant maintenance and regeneration of cells and processes such as hormone or energy production or blood sugar regulation to name just a few of thousands.
Secondly, there are hundreds of amino acids (protein’s building blocks) that exist in nature, but your body only needs 20 of them. Your body can produce 11 of the 20, but the remaining nine, called “essential amino acids”, must come from food. So it’s up to you to replenish those essential building blocks of your body with every single meal.
And that’s where I surprise most of my clients: You should ideally eat protein with every single meal and snack you have throughout the day. Yes, even breakfast. And no, you don't have to have steak for breakfast.
How Do I Get More Protein Into My Diet?
Besides the very important reasons mentioned above, it also makes sense to eat protein with every meal because it helps keep you full by balancing your blood sugar (more on that in the carb blog).
We call protein “complete” if it includes all of the nine essential amino acids. Animal based complete proteins include:
But there are also a few great plant based complete proteins:
soy (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, etc.)
And of course there are some great protein powders out there, if you don't mind the chalky taste. But as with the magical components in garlic mentioned above, I would always recommend aiming for real foods first and only use protein powders occasionally when you're short on time.
“Incomplete” proteins only contain a few of the essential amino acids. So to get the full spectrum (especially when you're eating a plant-based diet) it’s best to combine those throughout the day. The best sources are:
beans and legumes
nuts and seeds (that includes nut butters and flours, along with seed butters)
most grains (oats, rice, pasta, wheat, cornmeal, bulgur, farro, rye, etc.)
some vegetables (leafy greens, green peas, broccoli, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, asparagus and others)
some fruit (dried fruit, guava, avocado and others)
So now you know: rice is an incomplete protein (it’s 2.3% protein and 23% carb) so you best combine it with some beans to get all of your essential aminos.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
If you spend all day on your behind, it's about 0.8g per kg of body weight. If you move that behind around a bit every day it's between 1 and 1.2g. And if you are an athlete, you need between 1.2 and 1.8g.
Aim for around 20g (or a palm-sized portion) of protein with every meal and snack. To give you a bit more specific guidance, you get around 20g of protein from 3 eggs, 27g whey protein, 85g cheddar cheese, 450g plain yoghurt, 250g Greek yoghurt, 1 tin of chickpeas, 100g nuts, 170g tofu, 90g chicken/turkey or 100g minced beef.
Bottom line: make sure that a quarter of your plate at every meal is filled with a complete (or combined incomplete) protein the size of your palm and you’re good to go.