Protein: How much do I need and which supplements can I consume daily?

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The word "protein" has taken over, for many years now in world of wellness. We’ve certainly associated it in our minds with fitness, muscle gains, etc. So is it as important as it sounds? Where can we get protein from? Why is it important to meet our daily protein needs? Should I take a protein supplement or not? The questions are many, and we are here to answer them all, one by one. So let's get to know everything we need to know about protein.

Is it as important as it sounds?

YES! And this is already implied by the word, which comes from the ancient Greek verb "πρωτεύω, πρώτος", meaning "to lead, to come first, to be of utmost importance". Protein is one of the main components of our diet and we need it in large quantities, along with fat and carbohydrates (macronutrients).
While most of us have connected the term “protein” with exercise and sports nutrition, it is important for all of us to get adequate amounts of protein from our diets because of its vital role in the proper functioning of our body.

  • Structure and support. Our body structure is millions of protein molecules. Our hair, skin, nails and vital organs are millions of proteins, stacked and bound together.
  • Cell growth and remodeling. The cellular renewal that is necessary for the maintenance and continuation of life cannot take place without protein adequacy. In other words, the body needs amino acids, so that it can reconstruct and make new cells when old ones die.
  • Cellular communication. Billions of cells in our body communicate with each other continually, through protein molecules, which play the role of "messengers".
  • Digestion. The enzymes we all know are protein molecules that help break down food and use it.
  • Hormones are basic protein molecules that give orders to carry out hundreds of functions in the body (e.g. estrogen, testosterone, insulin, etc.)
  • Musculoskeletal system. The mobility and flexibility of the human body would be impossible without the presence of proteins in our muscles, joints and bones.

Where can I get protein from?

Different proteins are made up of different amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. 9 out of 20 amino acids are called essential, as the body cannot synthesize them on its own, and must be obtained through our diet, while the rest are called non-essential.
There are various dietary sources rich in protein, but there is an important difference between them. For a protein source to be considered complete, it must contain all the essential amino acids. Animal based protein is complete, whereas plant-based is not (with the exception of soya, quinoa & chia seeds). This is not a problem, however, as one can cover his amino-acid needs, by combining several different protein sources throughout the day.

Animal-based protein

CompleteRed & white meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy products (milk, yoghurt), whey protein

Plant-based protein

CompleteSoya products, chia seeds, quinoa, soya protein, vegan protein supplements with two or more plant-protein sources (e.g. Pea + Rice)

Complete when combinedLegumes, peas, nuts, seeds, whole grain products, Vegan protein supplements (with one plant source e.g. fava protein powder)

How much protein do we need?

Each of us has different protein needs, as we are all different. The recommendation for protein intake among the healthy adult population ranges from 0.8-1g/kg body weight per day. However, factors such as exercise (frequency, intensity, duration), gender, disease, age and injury greatly modify (mostly increase) our protein needs.
For example, in people who exercise, the recommendations, depending on the type of exercise, are as follows:
  • Endurance athletes: 1.2 - 1.8g/kg per kg body weight per day
  • Strength athletes: 1.4 - 2g/kg per kg body weight per day

Should I take a protein supplement? And if so, in which cases does it make a difference?

Our protein needs can be met, by following a balanced diet, purely through diet. However, protein supplements are an easy and practical way to meet our protein needs when they increase or in special circumstances, where their practicality accommodates hectic lifestyles. So in which situations could a protein supplement make a difference?

  • Athletes and people who exercise intensively. Protein requirements increase during exercise. Think that muscles, during exercise are "destroyed" and then, rebuilt. During their rebuilding, the presence of adequate protein is required. So when should I take a protein supplement if I am exercising? Before or after a workout? Although there is a belief circulating that the presence of protein is mainly needed after exercise, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. While it is highly necessary to take it after your workout, it is equally important to consume adequate protein overall throughout the day. So, the answer is, whenever it's convenient for you and convenient for you to supplement, while keeping an eye on your protein intake throughout the day. Individuals who aim to increase their muscle mass should consume more protein, which should be evenly distributed throughout the day. 20-40g per 3 hours is ideal to help you increase muscle mass and strength (always accompanied by the necessary stimulus of anaerobic exercise).
Extra tip: You'll find 20g of protein in 4 egg whites / in 90g of meat or seafood or fish / in a cup of strained yoghurt / in a scoop of whey protein.

  • People with a hectic daily routine and busy schedule. Everyone's free time has been greatly reduced, especially in large urban centres, with an obvious impact on our food choices. Protein supplements are an additional help - alongside a balanced diet - to enrich protein snacks and/or light meals such as a smoothie, during working hours, so that we have energy and stay full until our next meal.
  • People trying to lose weight. Protein, along with fiber, are the two most important components of our diets that provide satiety. It is important to consume adequate protein in our meals, if we are trying to lose weight.
  • Vegans or people who follow periods of fasting due to religion beliefs. A vegan protein supplement can help a lot in meeting protein needs, bearing in mind that it is important to consume many different plant protein sources throughout the day (g. nuts and oats in the morning, legumes at lunch, a pea protein supplement in the afternoon in a smoothie enriched with seeds, tofu in the evening, etc.)
  • Older people. As we age, our muscle mass begins to decline - especially if we don't exercise. Inadequate protein intake contributes even more to a decrease in muscle mass, which we should keep intact as long as we can, as it seems to protect us from chronic disease. According to recent studies, it appears that older people do not consume enough protein. A protein supplement is an ideal way of enriching their meals, such as adding it to soups, smoothies as well as to homemade dessert recipes (e.g. cakes, biscuits, etc.)

And if I decide to try a protein supplement, which one should I choose?

Many different supplements are out there and it's okay to feel confused. The best protein supplement is one that you like, enjoy, and serves your unique needs. If you consume dairy products, whey protein is the best supplement to choose, especially if you exercise, as it is one of the most well-studied supplements in the sports nutrition industry. If you are lactose intolerant, vegan or you follow a period of religious fasting, choose a plant-based protein supplement (pea, soy, hemp, etc.). In any case, protein supplements are designed to serve circumstances where protein demands are higher, and to complement our already balanced diet.

In conclusion, protein is one of the most important components of our diet, playing a vital role in a large range of actions throughout the body - not just in increasing muscle mass. Its sufficiency is important, not only for people who exercise, but also for all of us, with disease, ageing and different daily routines, increasing our needs. Holland & Barrett provides a wide range of sports nutrition products, including protein supplements, in many delicious flavours, so you can choose the one that suits you best.



Scientific References

Baum, J. I., Kim, I. Y., & Wolfe, R. R. (2016). Protein consumption and the elderly: what is the optimal level of intake?. Nutrients, 8(6), 359.

Campbell, B., Kreider, R. B., Ziegenfuss, T., La Bounty, P., Roberts, M., Burke, D., … & Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 4(1), 1-7.

Finger, D., Goltz, F. R., Umpierre, D., Meyer, E., Rosa, L. H. T., & Schneider, C. D. (2015). Effects of protein supplementation in older adults undergoing resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports medicine, 45, 245-255.

Liao, C. D., Tsauo, J. Y., Wu, Y. T., Cheng, C. P., Chen, H. C., Huang, Y. C., ... & Liou, T. H. (2017). Effects of protein supplementation combined with resistance exercise on body composition and physical function in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 106(4), 1078-1091.

Huecker, M., Sarav, M., Pearlman, M., & Laster, J. (2019). Protein supplementation in sport: source, timing, and intended benefits. Current nutrition reports, 8, 382-396.



Maria Kirmanidou, Dietitian & Sport Nutritionist

MSc in Sport Nutrition

Holland & Barrett Product Trainer