So let’s talk about protein. First up, as a chef I must say the word protein is kind of annoying, as the term doesn’t give any romance to all the incredible plants, legumes and animals it refers to.
At the same time, there are a lot of misconceptions around protein and its benefits, with some fad diets hailing it as the answer to everything. While protein is definitely an integral part of our diet, it does – like everything else – need to be eaten in the right amounts. I’m going to focus here on what protein does, what it actually is, how much we need, and what my beliefs around welfare and standards are when it comes to different protein sources.
￼WHAT DOES PROTEIN DO?
Protein is mighty – think of it as the building blocks of our bodies. It is absolutely essential for the growth and repair of muscle tissue, as well as building hormones, enzymes that build and break down substances in our bodies, and antibodies in our immune systems. This list, as I’m sure you’ll recognise, is basically everything that’s important to how we grow, repair, feel, break down and absorb things, and how we fight disease and infections. Whether you’re a seasoned carnivore, a pescatarian, a veggie or a vegan, protein really is your best friend and should be enjoyed in the right way.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
I think it’s important for me not to get too technical here, but basically, proteins are made up of a cocktail of 20 different amino acids. A lot are made in our body, but we have to get the rest from the food we eat.
Just like carbohydrates , not all protein sources are equal. Let me break it down:
- Complete proteins – meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese
- Incomplete proteins – beans, nuts, seeds, lentils,cereals, quinoa, oats, peas, tofu, bread, flour, corn
That’s not to say that the complete sources are superior, they’re just different – think of them as a one-stop shop. What’s important is to eat a wide range of different proteins across the week, and that way you’ve got a really good chance of getting it right. You might have also heard the term ‘complementary proteins’. This refers to mixing up your incomplete protein sources with each other in order to build up your volume of amino acids – baked beans on toast or rice and peas are perfect examples of this, and as well as being a match made in heaven on the taste front, are great combos to give you a high amino acid level.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
Generally, the optimal amount of protein to aim for is 45g a day for women aged 19–50 (which varies with factors such as pregnancy and breast-feeding), and 55g a day for men in the same age bracket. In the UK we usually get enough, but we do need to be mindful that we’re not having too much. About one-sixth of our balanced plate should be made up of protein.
Your balance across a week in terms of meat and fish consumption should generally be at least two portions of fish, one of which should be oily (such as salmon, trout or mackerel), then you want to split the rest of the week between meat-free, poultry and a little red meat.
Some diets advocate high protein consumption, particularly for weight control or building muscle mass, but this can have a whole cascade of negative effects, especially if combined with low carb intake. If you’re not an athlete, nor have been advised by a doctor to up your protein levels, excessive consumption isn’t a good idea – it can increase our risk of osteoporosis, too much red meat increases the risk of bowel cancer, and we can only metabolize a certain amount of protein anyway, so excrete the excess through our urine.
WELFARE, STANDARDS & PROVENANCE
For me, there’s no point in eating meat unless it’s been raised well and the animal was at optimal health. Choosing grass-fed animals where possible, that are free to roam and haven’t lived in a stressful environment is essential – it makes total sense to me that what we put into our bodies should have lived a good life, to in turn give us goodness. It’s about quality over quantity, so please choose organic, free-range or higher-welfare meat and responsibly sourced fish whenever you can.
I’m aware – as journalists often mention – that it does cost more to trade up. This isn’t because anyone’s being ripped off, but normally because the animal has lived a better-quality, longer life. Remember that you can trade up to higher-welfare meat and still buy the cheaper cuts, such as chicken thighs and minced meat. With clever buying skills and a slight reduction in your overall meat consumption, which is no bad thing, you can afford to improve on quality – double the pleasure.
I feel even more passionate about organic or free-range eggs, and organic milk, yoghurt and butter – the trade-up cost is less, the welfare comparisons are dramatic and we use them a lot, so it makes sense.
For ideas on how to incorporate eggs into your diet, have a look through these healthy egg recipes!
VEGGIE & VEGAN DIETS
Interestingly, these are looking really rather successful in health terms. Although meat and fish proteins are complete and robust in so many micronutrients, following a vegetarian or vegan diet just means you have to be a bit cleverer about your protein sources. Brilliant veggie options kick off with black beans, the highest source of bean protein, plus all the other beans, pulses, legumes, lentils, tofu, quinoa and chia. Vitamin B12, which is prolific in meat, can often be deficient in vegans. We need it to aid growth, for good digestion, to keep our nerves healthy, produce energy and maintain healthy blood cells. You can get it through supplements if you want, or by eating some forms of algae, so maybe supplements are looking good!
Everyday Super Food by Jamie Oliver is published by Penguin Random House ⓒ Jamie Oliver Enterprises Limited (2015 Everyday Super Food) Photographer: Jamie Oliver