On the menu: Protein-rich diet essential for strong body
Protein-rich food helps make muscle, connective tissue and crucial enzymes
Sea bass with marjoram and lemon; and chicken escalopes with Italian bean, tomato and and basil salad. Photographs: Brenda Fitzsimons
Protein is an essential nutrient and is needed for building and repairing muscle.
When we eat a protein-rich food, it is broken down to amino acids, which are then reassembled to make muscle, connective tissue, and enzymes for the immune system and other body functions. Eight of the amino acids are essential and cannot be made by the body. This means that we must get them from the foods we eat.
How much protein do we need?
All athletes have slightly higher requirements than the general, more sedentary population (0.8-1g per kg bodyweight a day). Strength athletes have higher protein requirements (1.2-1.7g per kg body weight per day) than endurance athletes (1.2-1.4g per kg body weight per day). However, if overall energy (calorie) requirements are met, a healthy balanced diet will provide enough protein to meet requirements.
What about protein supplements?
Protein supplements are unnecessary for the vast majority of gym users, who are trying to get fit and lose a few kilos.
When it comes to increasing muscle mass, supplements, bars and shakes are no more beneficial than protein from food.
Muscle is best gained through a combination of a good resistance-training programme and a diet adequate in both energy and protein.
Choose a variety of protein-rich foods. Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products such as cheese and yogurt, beans and pulses, quorn, tofu and unsalted nuts are all good examples of protein-rich foods.
Cut down on processed meat such as salami and chorizo as these are higher in calories, fat and salt.
Protein intake should be distributed throughout the day. Remember to leave enough space on your plate for salads and vegetables. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables/salad if you’re trying to lose weight, a quarter with carbohydrate and a quarter with protein.
Always choose lean meat and trim the fat off meat and the skin off chicken.
Choose low-fat dairy products: low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt and low-fat cheese (edam, gouda, feta, camembert, cottage cheese, softer cheese, low-fat cheddar).
Low-fat versions have the same amount of calcium as full-fat versions, but contain less saturated fat and are better for keeping your heart and weight healthy.
Protein isn’t available only from meat. If you are a vegetarian, though, you will need to make a special effort to ensure that your diet provides enough good quality protein by choosing plenty of low-fat dairy, eggs, peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, unsalted nuts, seeds, tofu and quorn.
Meal suggestions include quinoa and roast veg, wholemeal pasta with low-fat cheese or tuna, bean chilli with rice, lentil soup with whole-grain roll, stir-fried tofu or quorn with vegetables and brown rice/noodles.
Although nuts are a good source of protein and healthy fats, they are very high in calories. So 40g (a small handful) of unsalted nuts is sufficient to provide a little protein, and then use other sources of protein in meals or snacks. If you are trying to lose weight, choose nuts less often as a snack and limit to once or twice a week.
Straight after training is the time when muscle-protein synthesis is increased. During this time, a protein and carbohydrate snack should be eaten – not one or the other.