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‘Tis the season to make New Year’s resolutions. So what will yours be this year? Eat less? Lose weight? Exercise more? Tone up? Or just ‘get healthy’ to combat the excess of Christmas? If any of these are on your wish list, forget going on an extreme diet or starting an exercise regime without adequate fuel. I’ve got one resolution which will help you achieve all those goals: get clever about protein.
In nutrition, life everything in life, nothing works in isolation. If you begin to mix protein-rich foods with slow release carbohydrates you’ll get more bang for your buck. Why? Well, the combination will prevent blood sugar slumps and cravings and perk up energy levels.
It’s an easy formula that’s simple to follow, for example, instead of putting jam on an oatcake you’d select a topping such as hummus or nut butter with chopped banana. Or, with a bowl of porridge you’d increase the protein element by sprinkling nuts and seeds or a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt instead of drizzling honey. Get it?
And remember, being prepared is half the battle. If you can stick to a good breakfast and dinner routine at home then arm yourself with healthy handbag snacks and plan for lunch at work - there are plenty of healthy, and low-cost ideas that pack a protein punch, read on!
But first, let’s delve into why protein deserves a little more attention. The phrase “you are what you eat” is never more true than in the case of protein. One of the three macronutrients essential for a healthy diet (the other two are carbohydrates and fat), protein is used in almost every function in your body. It provides the building blocks of tissues and organs and is required for the synthesis and maintenance of muscles, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, bones, cartilage, hair and skin. So all in all it’s pretty important to being maintaining optimum health!
But eating protein isn’t just essential to how your body functions - it has some added benefits which could help you tackle those post-Christmas resolutions to get healthy.
Benefits of eating protein
“Fuller for longer” isn’t just a catchy marketing phrase. Eating protein triggers an increase in what's known as the 'full-up' hormone, so after a meal containing protein you’ll feel more satisfied. This reduces hunger and appetite and means you should consume fewer calories in a day.
In one study, overweight women who increased their protein intake from 15 to 30% of calories, on average ate 441 fewer calories a day without making any restrictions.
Improves muscle mass and strength
As I’ve already said, protein is an essential building block for the synthesis and maintenance of muscles. So after exercise, particularly high intensity exercise, your body needs good quality protein to help you muscles recover and repair. This ensures your body is ready for the next workout.
Sadly, when losing weight your body will lose muscle mass as well as fat. This is frustrating because lean muscle burns more calories than fat, even when not being used. Eating sufficient protein in your diet encourages your body to burn fat and preserves calorie-burning lean muscle.
Eating in general boosts your metabolism because your body uses energy to digest food. But not all foods are created equal. Your body uses more energy to digest protein. This has the effect of boost your metabolism and increasing the calories you burn digesting your food, in some studies by up to 100 calories a day.
Sources of protein – it’s not just meat!
When people think of protein, it’s usually steak, chicken, egg whites and the ever popular ‘protein shakes’ which come to mind. Animal proteins are commonly referred to as ‘complete proteins’ because they contain the nine essential amino acids your body cannot synthesize. But it’s not essential to eat meat to get your quota of protein. There are a number of plant sources which, if combined with grains, will give you all your essential amino acids. Planet protein also has additional health benefits. In contrast to animal protein, which has been associated with heart disease and cancer, plant protein has been linked with reduced risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, not to mention it’s better for the environment. Additionally, you can choose slow-release carbohydrates that have been formulated with added protein-rich seeds or nuts.
Living entirely plant based can be difficult for most people. Aim for a largely plant-based diet with quality over quantity as the rule of thumb on animal products. Choose organic animal products where possible and replace a proportion of your protein intake with these tasty plant proteins:
Tofu is made from soymilk curds that have been pressed into a block. The result is a smooth, soft texture that handily adopts the flavors of whatever sauces and spices it's paired with. For only 88 calories per half cup, tofu offers 10 grams of protein and a modest five grams of fat. It’s often hailed as a longevity wonder food as it is rich in heart-protective compounds called isoflavones. These compounds produce enzymes that create nitric oxide, a substance that keeps blood vessels healthy and may even boost blood flow and improve muscle function. Isoflavones are also antioxidants that can speed recovery by reducing free-radical damage.
Tofu comes in a variety of textures. If you are making a dish like lasagna use silken tofu in place of ricotta cheese or slice firm or extra-firm tofu – adding flavor with rubs or tamari - and grill or add to stir-fries.
This nutty-flavored meat substitute gets its chewy texture from whole cooked soybeans, in other words, it’s less processed that it’s tofu cousin. You'll find 19 grams of protein in a half cup and tempeh also delivers nearly 10 percent of your daily need for calcium. One study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that the body absorbs calcium found in tempeh just as well as that in cow's milk, making it a good option for those who follow a dairy-free diet too.
Like tofu, tempeh will soak up whatever flavors it's prepared with. But unlike tofu, which you can eat uncooked, it's best to heat tempeh before eating it.
Beans and lentils pack similar amounts of protein to tofu and tempeh but for many, they are more familiar ingredients. Lentils in particular are also rich in iron.
Lentil soup is an ideal lunch staple but brand out to other pulse based purees and dips. Like hummus, add garlic, salt and oil and blend to make a fantastic spread. Ideally, serve both dips and soups with Super Seeded oatcakes instead of bread to boost the nutrient content and slow-release energy quality of the meal.
Squeeze over fresh lemon or lime juice when serving lentils; the vitamin C improves your body’s absorption of the iron.
General guideline for protein
Even though a higher protein intake can be beneficial for your health, you can have too much of a good thing. Aim to consume around 15% of calories to prevent deficiency but increase this to 25-30% if you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle mass and strength or improve your metabolic health.
Excessive protein intake can cause kidney damage. If you have reduced kidney function or any other existing medical condition, you should consult your doctor before making changes to your diet.
High protein chicken and tarragon oatcake and topping recipe:
Chicken is a great source of protein and is naturally low in fat if it is produced in free-range conditions. Rich and creamy, avocados are high in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that’s wonderful for skin lustre.The addition of tarragon is a helpful aid to those who tend to multi-task over lunch at the laptop, a known trigger for tummy issues. This helpful herb promotes the secretion of digestive juices and activates the enzymes that assist digestion.For more tips from me and recipes, please visit Nairns here.