Featured story June 28, 2013
Say the word ‘protein’ and many women will run a mile: they associate it with body-building and think it will make them bulk up.
But if you’re a woman who works out a lot, you might not have enough in your diet. Both men and women should consume 0.8g-1g of protein per 1kg of body weight a day, says the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
‘This means a woman weighing 60kg should be eating between 48-60g of protein a day,’ says BDA dietitian Charlotte Proctor. ‘Most people eating a healthy balanced diet easily achieve their protein requirements.’
Foods high in protein include meat, fish, beans, whole grains, nuts, dairy and soy products. The body uses protein to build tissue, repair muscles and for energy when no carbohydrates are available. It also keeps a balanced pH level in the blood, builds and maintains hormone levels, and keeps the body’s immune system functioning properly.
‘There are complete and incomplete protein sources,’ says Proctor. ‘The protein from meat and dairy foods contains all the essential amino acids your body requires but can’t make. This makes them complete protein sources. But the protein from sources such as vegetables doesn’t contain all the amino acids.’
The guidelines haven’t been changed for years: protein has slipped off the health agenda, says dietician Lucy Jones. ‘While calories, salt, carbohydrates, fat, fruit and vegetables have all been in the headlines, there has been no new advice on Guideline Daily Amounts for protein since 1991,’ she says.
So if you’re working out regularly, should you raise your protein intake? ‘Yes,’ says James Daly, a nutritionist and personal trainer (www.jdpersonaltraining.co.uk). ‘Protein is one of the most important nutrients in the body and helps restore and repair muscle tissue, and relieve muscle soreness after a workout.
‘When you work out, you run the risk of losing muscle, so you need to ensure you replenish straight after training. For a sedentary person, 0.8g is fine – but someone active needs to be consuming around 1-1.5g per 1kg of body weight a day.’
While all the experts agree that it’s best to get your protein from food sources, it’s not always easy to do this straight after a workout.
‘Food should always be the foundation for any good diet and supplements should be just that, a supplement to your diet,’ says Daly. ‘But the reality of someone jumping straight to a table to eat some chicken after training is not always realistic. A protein shake is a convenient way of getting protein into the body to help your muscles recover.’ But for some reason, women fear protein shakes more than putting on weight.
Most protein shakes are based on whey protein, which is found in milk and contains all the essential amino acids the body needs. ‘Whey protein is a rich source of leucine, isoleucine and valine – amino acids that are extremely important for muscle growth, build and repair,’ says Jones. ‘Whey also doesn’t have excessive fats, calories or carbohydrates, which is why it is commonly used in sports performance drinks.’
Daly says it takes years of discipline and good genetics to build serious muscle. ‘Women just don’t have the testosterone for it,’ he says. ‘A lot of women talk about toning their legs or bottom but you can’t actually tone a muscle. What toning really means is reducing your body fat percentage and increasing your muscle mass.
‘Women freak out at the thought of gaining muscle but that is actually what gives the toned, firm look. And protein replenishes your muscles after a workout.’
Not only will having more muscle give you that toned look but it means you’ll be burning more calories even when you’re resting. Protein foods require more energy to digest than other food types, so a high-protein diet may help you lose weight. ‘The more muscle you have, the higher the metabolism,’ says Daly. ‘And therefore the more fat you’ll burn. You need muscle to lose body fat and to keep the muscle you need sufficient protein.’