In our clinic, we often find that there is a misconception that links the use of protein powders as solely the domain of those who want to build muscular physiques. As a result, for our female client’s in particular, there is resistance to using protein supplements in their diet. The reality however is that protein is an essential building block in anyone’s health and wellbeing, which is our overall focus at Feel Fresh Nutrition.
MYTHS AND PROVEN FACTS
It’s a confusing world we live in these days, with plenty of opinion and personal agendas clouding all of our understanding of what we should or could be doing health wise. So, in order to get to under the hood of why protein is essential to anyone’s wellbeing (but in this instance we’re focussing on women), we’re going to pull the science card out on you, and look at the proven, researched facts.
Protein is a macronutrient that is essential to building - and preserving - muscle mass. It is mainly found in animal products, but it is also present in other sources, such as nuts, grains and legumes. At a deeper level, protein is chemically composed of amino acids, including 9 essential amino acids our bodies need but cannot generate on their own. This means we need to obtain them from food sources.
Plant based protein sources such as legumes, nuts or seeds are generally incomplete protein sources. Meaning they do not contain all essential amino acids and need to be consciously combined to incorporate a full nutritional range. The exceptions being soy and quinoa.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WOMEN NEED?
According to the New Zealand Dietary Guidelines, women should be aiming for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. However, the nutrient reference values (NRV) document, a resource created by both Australian and New Zealand Government experts, has an acceptable macronutrient distribution range of 15-25 percent of daily calorie intake coming from protein.
— NZ Nutrient Reference Values
When taken as a percentage, this places protein requirements much higher than 46 grams per day and is more in line with academics who research protein needs for populations and advocate for levels of approximately 1.2 - 1.5g per kg body weight for optimal health outcomes, we find this works well with our female clients.
This is pretty broad though and several factors influence how much protein each individual needs.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER TO ADJUST YOUR PROTEIN INTAKE
A recent study found that women who ate a diet rich in protein and low in carbohydrates while undergoing in vitro fertilisation had higher pregnancy rates than those whose ratio of protein to carbs was the opposite.
The research was released at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists‘ annual clinical meeting and stated that “Patients whose protein intake represented 25 percent or more of their daily diet, and whose carbohydrate intake was 40 percent or less, had pregnancy rates four times higher than those who ate less protein and more carbs while undergoing in vitro fertilisation.”
It’s important to note that a diet comprising of 40% carbohydrates is by no means ‘low carb’ it is simply lower in carbohydrates than 7-11 servings of grain-based products per day. Given the highly satiating (filling) nature of protein, reducing overall carbohydrate consumption would likely happen automatically when increasing protein.
From your 30s and 40s lean body mass begins to decrease. Along with changes to body composition, this loss of lean muscle can impact the strength of your bones. Coupled with natural changes in female sex hormones such as reduced oestrogen, women going through menopause have increased risk of decreased bone density, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and osteopenia. In addition to participating in physical activity to maintain and build muscle, women in midlife also should strive to eat protein during meals to promote muscle-protein synthesis, which is essential to the body’s ongoing growth, repair, and maintenance of skeletal muscle.
WOMEN WITH INCREASE ENERGY REQUIREMENTS
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or generally active (exercise at a moderate to high intensity for more than 3 hours per week) you will have higher protein needs than 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight per day. This is simply because you will need more energy full stop. For women in this category aiming for 1 - 1.5 grams of protein per kilo of body weight will help to meet their increased nutritional requirements.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A PROTEIN SUPPLEMENT
We know that not all protein powders are created equally. Many on the market are full of sugar, fillers, vegetable oils and highly processed protein sources. When I recommend protein powders to clients I have a checklist for them to use.
— Abbie O'Rourke, Nutritionist
A protein powder should contain fewer than five ingredients, ideally have organic or free range ingredients, be a complete protein containing all essential amino acids while being high in absorbable protein; more than 15g per serve. Lastly I advise choosing a protein powder that is low in carbs and sugar. Look for something that contains less than 5g of carbs per serve. Bearing in mind that in a quality whey-based product those carbs and sugars will be coming from naturally occurring lactose.
Go Good ticks all the boxes for me and I happily recommend it to all my clients. It’s Whey Protein is made 100% from New Zealand dairy and flavoured with natural, organic freeze dried fruit. It’s highly absorbable and low in total carbs.
WHY INTEGRATE PROTEIN POWDER IN A BALANCE DIET
- Protein powder is easily portable and can be added to a lot of meals to make it a complete macro-balanced meal. Many women - especially those who are busy mums - find breakfast the hardest meal of the day to incorporate a quality protein.
- Given we know including protein at breakfast is critical for blood sugar management and curbing sugar cravings later in the day, getting an easy source of protein in with breakfast is key. Smoothies or even porridge or bircher with a scoop of protein mixed through is a convenient way to boost your protein intake.
- Real food sources of complete protein such as eggs, chicken or fish are more expensive than oats or fruit. Adding a scoop of protein to these more cost effective ingredients is significantly cheaper than consuming animal-based protein at every meal. Go Good protein is also suitable for vegetarians.
- Studies have also shown that including a protein rich source at breakfast time - and thus a likely higher protein diet overall - can help with sugar cravings and overeating later in the day. One study found that replacing a grain based breakfast with protein rich sources such as eggs, fish, meat or protein powder has been shown to help you eat fewer calories for the next 36 hours.
We like thinking of protein powder as a convenient form of protein that can be used to supplement your whole food diet. Regardless of your goals, eating a whole food diet based on vegetables, fruits, animal or plant proteins and whole grains helps to ensure a good spread of vitamins, minerals and fibre. It’s also important to create healthy eating habits you can maintain your level of health once you reach your ideal goal, but that’s another blog post all on it’s own.
— Abbie O'Rourke, Nutritionist