On the menu: Protein-rich diet essential for strong body

Protein-rich food helps make muscle, connective tissue and crucial enzymes


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.

Increasing your protein intake, but not getting enough carbohydrate, means that the muscle glycogen stores will not be refuelled and you won’t have enough energy for the next training session.

This week’s recipes are high in protein, yet light and tasty too. Thanks to Mark Doe of Just Cooking, Firies, Co Kerry.

Sea bass en papillote with marjoram and lemon
Serves 4

4 x 150g sea bass fillets, skinned
Olive oil for brushing
1 carrot, peeled and finely shredded
2 celery sticks, finely shredded
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely
2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
8 thin slices of lemon
A little dry white wine or freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat 190C/gas mark 5. Cut four large rectangles of silver foil and four large rectangles of baking parchment, big enough to wrap each fish fillet generously. Place each piece of foil, shiny side up, on a work surface, put a piece of parchment on top and fold in the edges. Brush each piece of parchment with a little oil.

Season the fillets with salt and pepper. Mix the vegetables together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Divide the vegetables between the parchment sheets, keeping them to one side of each rectangle of paper to make a bed for the bass fillets. Lay one fillet on top of each pile of vegetables and sprinkle with the marjoram. Lay two slices of lemon over each fillet and sprinkle with the wine or lemon juice.

Fold the free half of the parchment over the fish and twist or fold the edges tightly together to seal. Lay the packets on a baking tray and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce cooking time if fillets are smaller.

Serve immediately on warm plates, allowing everyone to open their packages at the table.
Chargrilled chicken escalopes with an Italian bean, tomato, feta cheese and basil salad
Serves 4
These chicken-breast escalopes are not only healthy but very quick to cook. They are also fantastic for a barbecue.

For the salad
400g cannellini beans
250g on-the-vine cherry tomatoes
200g rocket
100g light feta cheese
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp white wine vinegar
8 pitted black olives, finely chopped
1 tbsp freshly chopped or torn basil leaves
A little sea salt and pepper to season

For the chicken
2 chicken breast fillets (skinless)
A little rapeseed oil or low-fat spray oil

Cut each chicken fillet in half lengthways and place each piece between two sheets of cling film. Lightly bat the chicken out with a rolling pin so that you have four pieces of thin chicken escalopes.

Now make the salad by mixing all of the ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside.

Remove the chicken from the clingfilm and lightly brush with a little rapeseed oil or spray with some low-fat cooking spray.

Sprinkle each side with a little paprika.
Preheat a chargrill pan over a medium heat until hot. Cook the chicken for two to three minutes on each side until cooked through. Serve with the bean salad and crusty bread.

Paula Mee is lead dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. medfit.ie @paulamarymee

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