The p word

8 min read

Is protein a midlife must or has it been over-hyped? Nutritionist Stephanie Moore sets the record straight.

Protein is one of three macronutrients – alongside fat and carbohydrate – that make up the bulk of food we need to be eating daily in relatively large quantities (hence macro) to meet our physical needs. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients we need to absorb from our food, but in tiny amounts. Take a scroll on social media and you’ll see that protein has become a hot topic. Thankfully, we appear to have moved on from the ‘low-fat is best’ mantra and most accept that reducing our intake of refined carbohydrates is a good idea. Now it’s the turn of protein to be in the dock. Ask any nutritionist, fitness expert, doctor or gym-bunny, and most will tell you protein is very important, but all will have different thoughts about just how much we should be eating. To make sense of what’s what with protein and why it matters, here’s what you need to know.

Protein and fat are essential

We cannot live without protein and fat. Interestingly, we can survive without carbohydrates (though it is not recommended) because the body can make its own glucose and we only need tiny amounts to survive. Our body can’t make its own protein, however. If we’re not eating enough, the body is forced to ‘eat up’ internal sources of protein, including our muscle – not ideal!

For most people, eating adequate fats and carbs is pretty effortless. All veg, fruits and grains contain carbs, with rice, potatoes, bread and pasta delivering high concentrations. A knob of butter, a glug of olive oil, a handful of nuts or a good chunk of cheese and you’ve had a nice hit of fat. With protein, despite it being present in most foods, getting sufficient amounts is not so simple for many women.

Protein is a major player for health

Protein is required for the growth and maintenance of bones, muscle, skin, nails and hair, along with connective tissue and the lining of the digestive tract. Our organs must have a regular supply of the components of protein to repair and thrive. Moreover, protein fuels hundreds of bodily processes, from the production of hormones to the regulation of immune system function. Proteins also make enzymes. Over 500 biochemical reactions depend on enzymes, including digestion, where enzymes break down our food, enabling nutrient absorption. Proteins also provide the core ingredients for making our brain chemicals – known as neurotransmitters.

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