Protein has been big nutrition news for a number of years now. It may even feel like old news. But before you move on to seaweed (a Pinterest-predicted food trend for 2023….and a good protein source actually) listen up. It is estimated that over 40% of women are not even reaching the minimum recommended levels of protein to prevent health issues.
And what’s more – the older we get, the more protein we need. Yes – over 40, your attention should definitely be on protein intake over calories or fat. But then it always should have been to be fair!
What Does Protein Do in the Body?
Protein is essential for pretty much every structure and function in the body. It provides ‘amino acids’ which are the basic structural and functional building blocks of cells, hormones, tissues and organs. New amino acids are in constant demand to help repair and maintain everyday wear and tear in all systems of the body.
However, after 40 we require more amino acids to maintain our protein levels. For example, we know that after 30 we lose muscle mass at a rate of 3-8% per decade, with evidence suggesting that this may be because we don’t use amino acids as efficiently as we age.
This means we need to consume more of them to keep functioning as we have previously. And if we don’t then we may not be able to keep up with the maintenance our body needs. In women, menopause and declining oestrogen levels exacerbate this situation (of course it does). So think of protein as a longevity nutrient – we need it in greater quantities as we age to help keep us physically, structurally and metabolically healthy.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Official European recommendations for adults are 0.83 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. Practically speaking that equates to approximately 53g of protein per day for a 65-kilo woman. However, many nutrition experts believe that this is not enough.
You see – that figure is set (like most nutrient recommendations) just above the point where deficiency symptoms might kick in. I don’t know about you but I prefer to work with a slightly larger margin of error where my quality of life is concerned.
Also – what is with this ‘aiming for mediocrity’ approach to healthcare? I don’t want to just ‘not fall apart’ thanks, I’d prefer a bit of ‘optimum health’ please. Anyone else? If 0.83g of protein per kilo of body weight is going to keep me alive…how much is going to make me FEEL alive??
Regardless – I firmly believe this figure is far too low for anyone over 40. It simply won’t help maintain most individuals’ muscle mass. Many experts now suggest between 1.2-1.4g of protein per kilo of body weight as a more reasonable target. But this might be higher if you are very active (as more amino acids are required for muscle repair) or have insulin resistance (due to protein losses associated with this condition). Some estimates suggest levels as high as 2.2g per kilo of body weight but it is important to discuss specific needs with a nutrition expert before making such significant dietary changes.
If we take 1.2-1.4g per kilo of body weight as the suggested ballpark then for a 65-kilo woman that would equate to at least 78-91g of protein per day.
Please note: the figures above should really be based on protein intake per kilo of lean body mass, not overall body weight – but that’s harder to calculate. So, let’s say you’re carrying a little extra weight and weigh around 90 kilos. That does not mean you need to eat 200gs of protein. Most likely your lean body mass is somewhere between 60-70 kilos and protein intake should be based on that.
It’s also important not to increase intake very dramatically overnight as this could impact digestion, particularly if fibre and water are not increased concurrently. So if you are only consuming around 50gs of protein a day right now, consider aiming for 65-70gs, see how you feel and once you are consistently hitting that mark, and feeling good, then increase to the higher recommended levels.
Now, because this is the nutrition field – it’s not as simple as just focusing on how much protein we eat though….. that’s why everyone gives up and hits the donuts right! With protein, we also need to consider WHEN we eat and WHAT sources we choose.
Let’s start with the ‘when’.
When to Eat Your Protein
Protein is best consumed regularly throughout the day. This means you’re aiming for at least 20g of protein per meal with a couple of protein-dense snacks thrown in for good measure.
What does that look like?
I’m not suggesting you sit down to a cup of pumpkin seeds for lunch or knock yourself up 3 whole eggs for brekkie – but a small bowl of yoghurt and a few nuts is not going to get you anywhere close to that magic 20g figure. However, combining your high-protein foods, or adding additional bits and pieces to salads, soups and one-pot dishes (think seeds, chickpeas, lentils etc) can make this easily achievable. See the next couple of graphics below if you don’t believe me.
But (there’s always a but right?), focusing your attention on an even higher protein breakfast (around 30 g) may offer even greater benefits. This is because:
- 1) On a basic level, it means you’ve ticked off 30g of protein nice and early in the day so you’ve less to worry about later. A bit like my approach to exercise!
2) Consuming protein at breakfast can help to support blood sugar balance, satiety and satisfaction – keeping you fuller longer. Some research has shown this positively affects cravings and snacking throughout the rest of the day, affecting the impact of both lunch and dinner on blood sugar levels too.
3) Point 2 is linked to the protein leverage hypothesis – which suggests that protein is the primary nutrient the body is looking to get enough of each day. And it will keep demanding food, and encouraging eating until it’s protein needs have been met – even if that means over consuming calories and other macronutrients (fat and carbohydrate) on the way.
Think of your body waking up each morning and going ‘right – where are my amino acids coming from today?‘
If it starts off with a protein injection at breakfast it can relax and let you crack on with your life. But if it gets to midday and is left with a meagre supply then it might start to get a bit nervy, and be looking for snacks. If it gets to evening and it’s tank is still pretty empty then full-on panic may set in and you might find yourself glued to the fridge without knowing why!!!
So the basic message is – stock up on protein early and see if it helps with those late afternoon nibbles or evening-time munchies! For me – I’m on board with anything that warrants launching into a plate of salmon and eggs in the morning!
What to Eat to Obtain Enough Protein
Your body requires 20 different amino acids to make everything it needs and to carry out all it’s basic functions. It can make 11 of these but the other 9 must be obtained from food. These 9 are therefore considered ‘essential’ amino acids and are the ones the body is hunting for each day.
Any food containing protein includes a mix of essential amino acids, with some food sources higher in some than others. A food is called a ‘complete protein’ if it contains all nine essential amino acids, whilst those containing only some of the essential amino acids are considered ‘incomplete’. Still with me? To keep it simple:
Complete proteins are generally from animal sources:
- Whole sources of soy (like tofu, edamame, tempeh and miso)
- Quinoa – according to some sources!
Vegetarian protein sources such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and veggies generally lack one or more essential amino acids and are therefore considered incomplete.
So do you need to run out, hit the butchers and jump on the keto or carnivore diet?
For me – absolutely not. Others might disagree but that’s the thing about nutrition – there are lots of opinions, lots of ways to achieve similar results and that just shows the beauty and complexity of the human body. We are all unique physically, metabolically and mentally. What works for one may not work for another.
But I believe it is not as simple as ‘complete protein’ = good, ‘incomplete protein’ = bad….particularly where hormones are concerned.
The Importance of Plant-Based Protein
Firstly – amino acids can hang around in the body for a while and therefore as long as you get a good range of the essential amino acids throughout the day then your body can do a bit of a ‘pic n mix’ and take what it needs from different food sources. So throwing in a variety of lentils, whole grains, and veggies means you can meet protein demands with a wholefood plant-based diet. Adding in some animal-source protein gives added security, and a good dose of some really useful amino acids, but I’d still be majoring on plant-based sources.
You see – food is more than just protein….you wouldn’t always know it on social media but let’s not forget those all-important essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), phytonutrients (gorgeous anti-inflammatories, anticarcinogens, immune boosters etc) and fibre (the latter two are only found in plants) that are needed to keep the body in tip-top health? They don’t need to be muscled out in order to obtain adequate protein from the diet.
Also, in terms of hormone health, variety is key – consuming protein from meat can help supply the specific amino acids necessary for the detoxification of hormones, whilst plant-source proteins are often higher in amino acids, fibre and other micronutrients necessary for hormone metabolism and elimination.
Also, whilst animal-source proteins may offer a more efficient and complete source of amino acids, over-consumption of these foods (particularly of products from intensively farmed animals) may negatively impact hormone levels, particularly oestrogen.
Research shows that Western women tend to consume more meat, significantly more saturated fat and much less fibre than women consuming more traditional Asian diets. For a variety of potential reasons, this has been associated with higher oestrogen levels plus less effective metabolism and excretion of oestrogen. Therefore at menopause, when production of oestrogen declines, Western women can experience more dramatic and erratic fluctuations in oestrogen due to their higher starting point. The resulting symptoms may therefore be more uncomfortable than those experienced by women consuming a more plant-based and wholefood Asian diet.
Do You Need a Protein Supplement?
In theory, there should be no need to supplement protein as it can be easily obtained through the diet. However – you know those days when you’re in a rush and you just want a guaranteed protein boost as you’re not sure how it’s going to go for the rest of the day – then why not!! I ALWAYS have a high-quality protein powder in my cupboard. It gets thrown in smoothies, the kid’s yoghurt, pancakes…you get the picture.
Personally, I like a nice vegan protein powder that includes lots of other goodies, such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrient blends etc but a high quality whey protein also offers a great amino acid profile. I love Nuzest and Garden of Life products but there are lots of other great brands to choose from.
BUT if in doubt – food first!
So to help you out and to wrap up this week’s blog – here’s a little creative inspiration for increasing protein intake easily.
Remember that I also have a recipe section on my website packed with simple, quick, delicious and generally high protein recipes for busy midlife women looking for easy ways to eat for health. I only do quick and easy in the kitchen so if that sounds like you then head to my website now!
Don’t forget though – whilst protein is vital for health, it does not work alone and therefore should not be given higher precedence than other essential and incredible nutrients, including wholefood sources of carbohydrates and fats. That’s why variety is SO important in a healthy and sustainable diet.
Let me know in the comments your own hacks for increasing protein and which products and protein powders you like best.
If you like what you’ve read and would like more practical information and tips on nutrition, lifestyle and mindset for midlife women then I’d love it if you followed me at motherflushingmidlife at the social links below.