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What is protein and why do we need It?

Protein helps us to get leaner. As the raw material for almost all body tissue, proteins are broken down and used to create the cells that make up organs, muscle, skin hair, neurotransmitters and more. In fact, protein helps your body replace over 98% of its total cells every year.

Everyone knows that we need to eat protein but many of us don’t know exactly why. Here’s the low down on where protein is found in food and how much we need to eat for peak health and vitality.

What is it?

‘Protein’ is the name given to long chains of amino acids. When we eat food containing protein it is broken down into individual amino acids that create cells. As the primary building block of the body it is obvious that protein needs to be consumed in appropriate amounts. Although we don’t need massive amounts of protein, one way we can ensure that we are getting enough of this vital nutrient is to make sure that every meal we eat includes a quality protein.

Some examples of common protein-containing foods are meat, chicken and eggs, yoghurt, kefir and milk, legumes, nuts and seeds and quality protein powders.

Why do we need it?

Protein has a higher ‘thermic effect of food’ (TEF) rating than either carbohydrates or fat. This means that when a higher proportion of your diet is protein your metabolic rate (and consequently fat loss) is going to be higher. In other words, eating protein makes us lean.

Protein foods may also help to encourage that feeling of fullness after a meal, cutting down the tendency to crave particular foods-especially sugar.

Improved lean body mass:

A good protein intake will allow us to maintain a higher ‘lean body mass’ (LBM). This helps to give us the lean, fit-looking physique that many desire while improving metabolic rate further and helping to decrease fat storage.

Improved alertness and focus:

Amino acids supply the raw material for the ‘excitatory neurotransmitters’ such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine that are responsible for our sense of alertness and awakening. When we do not have enough of these amino acids we are more likely to suffer mental and physical fatigue.

Bone structure and health:

Protein provides the matrix for bone and connective tissue. Ample protein helps to provide the structure for maintaining strong healthy bones.

How much do we need?

The government’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day or around 55g of protein per day for a 70kg individual or around 18g of protein per meal (over three meals per day).

This figure is considered a little low by most authorities on nutrition. A rough guide to healthy protein intake would be that every meal should contain at least the amount of protein equivalent to around 100g of meat, chicken or fish, one cup of legumes or one serve (two small scoops) of a protein powder.


About the author:

Cliff Harvey is a naturopath and registered clinical nutritionist with a clinic on Auckland’s North Shore. Cliff also lectures on the topic of sports nutrition at Auckland’s Wellpark College and runs education programmes for trainers, coaches, naturopaths and nutritionists. He is pursuing research at AUT University in the area of nutritional metabolism. 

Over the past 15 years Cliff has worked with many high-performing athletes competing at Olympic, world championship and Commonwealth Game level.

Cliff is one of the co-creators of the NuZest range of products: Good Green Stuff and Clean Lean Protein.


Read more from Cliff Harvey here