How to optimise your protein intake?

author

Charlotte is a Nutrition and Regulatory Specialist at Fonterra. She holds a BSc. Human Nutrition, and PG Dip. Food Science.

You probably know that getting enough protein, as part of a balanced diet, is essential for maintaining optimal health.

While New Zealanders often consume enough protein, it turns out we could do more to help our bodies make the most of its benefits. So how much protein are we eating on average, and how can we improve what we’re doing?

How much protein do we need and how much are we eating?

Most New Zealanders eat more than the minimum amount of protein required to cover basic needs – for most people aged over 14 years, this is between 45-81 g of protein per day. However, there may provide additional health benefits from consuming more. This is reflected in the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), which was developed to help prevent chronic diseases, meet micronutrient needs and support optimal lean body mass.

The AMDR recommends that protein should make up between 15-25% of your total energy intake. For someone with an overall energy need of 2,000 Cal (8,360 kJ), that’s roughly between 75-125 g protein each day. The last Ministry of Health NZ Adult Nutrition Survey from 2008 / 09 found women and men, on average, were getting 71g and 102g respectively, which was around 16% of their overall energy requirements. So while we have a pretty good idea that we’re eating more than our minimum protein requirements, it is on the lower end of the optimal range. But there’s more we can do to reap the benefits of having more protein. The amount of protein you need depends on your individual requirements- which you can check by using our online Protein Calculator.

The AMDR recommends that protein should make up between 15-25% of your total energy intake.

Three ways to optimise your protein consumption

1. Consume protein evenly throughout your day

People tend to eat the majority of their protein during their evening meal. But this can negatively affect the balance of muscle growth and breakdown that happens in our bodies every day. Without adequate protein intake at regular intervals, we can end up spending part of our day in negative muscle balance, where the body may start using muscle stores to obtain protein for basic needs. If this happens often enough, it can lead to ongoing muscle loss and eventually sarcopenia – a significant loss of muscle mass and function in advanced age. Emerging research however, suggests that spreading your protein consumption across your meals throughout the day may actually help to stimulate muscle growth more effectively.  This when combined with exercise could lead to a more positive muscle balance. Here are some easy ways to help you have enough protein throughout your day.

2. Choose high quality proteins, or a range of protein-rich, plant-based foods.

While overall protein consumption is important to consider, the quality of the protein you eat is just as essential! There are around 20 different amino acids that can be found within protein – some of which our bodies can create. However nine of these are what we would consider indispensable – meaning that we must get them from our diet. Luckily, high quality proteins found in dairy and other animal-based products, contain all nine indispensable amino acids that our bodies are able to absorb easily.

If you don’t eat meat or prefer to follow a vegan-based diet however, there is no need to fear! While many plant based foods may not always contain all indispensable amino acids (which we need to get from the diet), consuming a range of protein-rich plant-based foods over the course of the day can help you get all the amino acids you need. 

3. Remember to combine regular exercise with your protein intake.

Protein has a huge role to play with helping to stimulate muscle growth, but simply meeting your minimum daily protein requirement may not be enough to obtain or maintain an optimal body composition. Consuming protein after weight bearing exercises can result in an increase in lean body mass and an improvement in strength, when compared to other nutrients. In fact, consuming between 20-30g of high quality protein in a meal, following a weight bearing exercise can minimise protein breakdown and help stimulate muscle growth. While it might sound like a lot, this could be as easy as including a chicken breast into a salad or topping a bowl of oats with yoghurt.