Protein is an essential nutrient within the diet and is needed by our bodies for several reasons. The main role of protein is for growth, repair and maintenance of our body tissues. Additionally, protein is also needed to support musculoskeletal, bone, hormonal and immune health, as well as helping us to maintain healthy skin, nails and hair.
Protein is made up from smaller building blocks called amino acids, of which there are approximately 20 different types, available in foods of both plant and animal origin. Out of these 20 amino acids, 9 of these are ‘essential’, as these can’t be made by our bodies so must be obtained through the diet instead. The remaining amino acids are ‘non-essential’ and can be produced by our bodies if we eat enough protein in our overall diet.
What are the dietary sources of protein?
Protein rich foods of animal origin include meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Plant-based sources of protein include beans and pulses (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans), grains (oats and quinoa), certain vegetables (green peas and edamame), soya (e.g. tofu), nuts and seeds. As part of our overall diet and to make sure we are provided with all the ‘essential’ amino acids, we should aim to consume a wide variety of these different protein sources.
Most of us are consuming enough protein in our diets to meet our needs, and deficiency is rare. However, many people still may want to increase their protein intake, for numerous reasons, and consuming an adequate protein intake may be more challenging for certain groups of people such as the elderly population or those with certain medical conditions.
Why might you need to gain weight or increase protein intake?
There are many reasons why someone may need to gain weight: following illness; being found to have a underweight BMI; being an elite athlete or competitor of specific sports who’s performance can benefit from increasing the proportion of their lean muscle mass. Casual gym-goers may also want to increase their lean muscle mass for their own personal fitness goals too.
Those suffering from malnutrition and a low body mass may want to gain weight as a way of improving health and aiding recovery. Those living with digestive issues (Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis), swallowing or chewing difficulties (dysphagia), certain mental health problems (depression, schizophrenia), eating disorders (anorexia), dementia or cancer are more likely to be at risk of becoming malnourished. Malnutrition is also more likely to be an issue for someone recovering from surgery, or after being involved in an accident that results in serious injury. Older adults are more likely to be affected by many of these health conditions, and additionally may naturally have a reduced appetite and/or find it more challenging to cook and prepare their own meals.
An adequate protein intake is vital for supporting muscle and bone health and maintaining muscle mass. Protein forms a large proportion of our muscles, so to maintain muscle mass we need to make sure we eat enough protein. If our diet is not providing our bodies with enough protein and/or energy (calories) then our muscles will begin to break down, causing a decline in muscle mass over time. Therefore, to build muscle mass an increase in protein intake is recommended, especially alongside resistance-based exercises such as weight training and brisk walking. An increase in muscle mass can be beneficial, especially for older adults, as this can help to improve strength and limit age-related muscle loss (which is called sarcopenia). Additionally, an increase in muscle will also allow for greater preservation of muscle mass in periods where energy (calorie) intake may be low.
How to increase your protein intake
Methods of increasing protein intake can include consuming more protein-rich foods, but also by using protein powders and drinking protein shakes. Protein enriched foods, such as the tasty soups and bakery products in our Carezzo range, are also a convenient way of boosting protein intake from foods which aren’t traditionally associated with being high in protein. For example, our protein enriched cake, raisin buns and muffins are not only high in energy but contain 10g of protein per portion.
Another quick and convenient way of increasing protein intake is by consuming nutritionally enriched drinks such as our Ensure drinks range. For example, the Ensure Max Protein drink provides 30g of protein per bottle!
Overall, it is important to remember that we need a wide variety of different nutrients to stay healthy, not just protein. We should aim to focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet including all the key food groups. As well as eating protein-rich foods, we should also consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates and wholegrains, some milk and dairy products (or fortified alternatives) and small amounts of healthy fats and oils too. Eating meals, with a variety of different colours, regularly throughout the day and staying adequately hydrated is a good place to start when trying to stay healthy. However, for those who have extra nutritional needs, protein and nutritionally enriched food and drinks such as the Carezzo and Ensure ranges can be a great way to complement a healthy balanced diet.