One question I’m often asked is how to easily and cheaply increase your protein intake. Proteins are made up from amino acids which are crucial for all our cells, not just muscles – they’re the “building block” of our bodies, repairing tissues, making hormones and fighting infections. The standard government recommendation (RDA) is 45g/day for women, and 55g/day for men. However, as with all dietary recommendations these are just guidelines for a notional average person and need to be personalised according to your size, metabolism/body type, activity levels and also food preferences! If you’re tall, have a fast metabolism and a relatively high amount of muscle mass then naturally you’ll need more of all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) than someone who’s smaller.
If you’re active then your protein requirements will also be higher than the RDA, especially if you incorporate high intensity (HIIT) or resistance (weight) training into your workouts. You probably know that protein requirements are higher for people trying to build muscle mass and put on weight, but you may not have guessed that protein requirements can be up to double the RDA if you are trying to lose weight: eating enough protein is vital to ensure you lose body fat, not muscle to create a strong, “toned” body. Regardless of the green hulk-like images that you may think of when you hear the words “plant-based” and “protein”, increasing your daily protein intake to 1.5-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight will not turn you into an Arnold Schwarzenegger-lookalike overnight! Women simply don’t have the hormones required to “bulk up” without years of very specific training and dieting, and even most men can only gain a few kilos of muscle per year naturally.
Protein-rich vegetarian food sources are widely known – even the most popular protein supplement, whey protein, is a vegetarian option, but there’s still a widespread belief that it’s impossible to meet your daily protein needs from a plant-based diet. Whilst I’m not a vegan, I do eat a lot of plant-based meals, so have found some great protein-rich foods which you can easily incorporate into your diet. Few plant-based foods are complete sources of all the amino acids (quinoa, black beans and chickpeas are) but by combining foods in meals you can get all the amino acids which your body needs.
Tip one: start with real food!
It’s usually perfectly possible to meet your protein needs from normal unprocessed foods, especially if your requirements are at the lower end (0.6-1.3g/kg/day). Being aware of which of your favourite foods are good sources of protein is a much easier and more sustainable place to start than rushing to your local health food shop and spending £50 on “superfood” powders! Try my three bean houmous recipe, or make a simple risotto with 120g cooked brown rice (5g protein), 200g cauliflower “rice”, 100g frozen peas (6g), 80g cannelini beans (5.5g) and 1 tbsp cashew butter (3g) which provides 19.5g protein in less than 500 calories.
Tip two: eat more macronutrient-rich foods
Whereas almost all of the calories in some foods are from one macronutrient source (for example, 85% of calories in white rice are from carbohydrates), many plant-based foods contain multiple macronutrients. Pulses (especially black beans, lentils and chickpeas) contain up to 33% protein as well as carbohydrates; nuts and seeds (including chia seeds) are great sources of protein and fat (100g of almond butter contains 25g protein) and if you eat soya, you can get another 10g of protein from just 80g of boiled soya beans.
Tip three: consider supplements for added convenience
You may not need to change anything in your diet to get enough protein, but if you’re struggling to take your preferred meals to work or eat regularly then supplements can be really useful. Look for natural, unsweetened and unflavoured foods and always check the protein content against the portion size: yes, spirulina is 63% protein but that’s still only 3.2g per typical serving so won’t solve your protein needs alone! Hemp, pea and seed protein powders are particularly popular but often have very strong tastes so try to buy a sample packet first and experiment with smoothie and baking recipes to see if you can mask the flavour! I was kindly given a packet of That Protein’s cold pressed pumpkin & chia seed protein powder* at a recent event which I can’t wait to try – with just two ingredients it’s already passed my first “natural” checks!