Strong Not Skinny – the Power of Protein

Egg salad

It is widely accepted that carrying excess weight is damaging to health and most of us are aware of the increased risk of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease if we are severely overweight. However, not many of us realise that a ‘lose weight at all costs’ approach can be equally damaging to health, particularly to our long-term health. People who want to lose weight often just focus on a number on a scale. Then they feel they have been successful if they can get close to that target without knowing that there is a right way and a most definite wrong way to lose weight and the wrong way may actually cause more harm than good. 

If you have been unhappy with your body shape for a while, maybe since having kids and are determined to do something about it, it is worth noting that you are unlikely to get back the body you had in your teens or twenties. There are significant changes that occur to our metabolism, hormones and body composition as we age and these need to be considered before embarking on a weight loss plan. Another important consideration is knowing when to stop – once you start to lose weight it can often spur you on to go further, but excessive weight loss can build up health problems further down the line. With this in mind, a good mantra is to think ‘strong not skinny’.

Focusing on a target weight can leave you with skinny arms and legs and a spare tyre of stubborn fat around your middle. Not only is this unlikely to be the look you were hoping for, but also abdominal fat is associated with a greater risk of metabolic disease and high blood pressure. The loss of muscle mass from arms and legs can lead to frailty in old age with an increased risk of falls.  

As we age, there is a natural loss of muscle mass. This can be exacerbated by a poor diet leading to the condition sarcopenia, and once muscle is lost, it is notoriously difficult to build up again. To begin with you may not notice effects of sarcopenia, but eventually, it could impair your gait, balance and overall ability to perform daily tasks. 

All this points to the importance of maintaining muscle mass while losing weight and championing strength over a desired dress size. Muscle mass is preserved through the right type of resistance exercise and consuming adequate protein.

Protein needs

Daily protein requirements are lower than most people would expect. It is generally recommended that a person consumes around 0.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight, meaning if you weight 70kg (11stone) you would need 49g of protein per day. This is the equivalent of 2 eggs and a small 4oz steak. 

As with most body tissues, muscles are dynamic and are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. To gain muscle, your body must synthesize more muscle protein than it breaks down. In other words, there needs to be a net positive protein balance in your body. Recently, it is now thought that in order to maintain and/or increase muscle mass an intake of 1.2g per kilogram body weight is required. This would mean that the same 70kg person needs 84g of protein per day. 

Protein distribution

A key aspect of achieving a positive protein balance is how protein is consumed throughout the day. Typical diets tend to have an uneven distribution of protein, with breakfast and lunch tending to be carb heavy – think a bowl of porridge to start the day and a sandwich or sub at lunch, then a large amount of protein at dinner in the form of mince, chicken or fish. Research has shown that a more even distribution of protein throughout the day has a better effect on building and maintaining muscle mass. Consuming around 20-25g of protein at each meal and snack is considered the optimal amount to maximise synthesis and minimise breakdown resulting in a net positive balance. 

This could translate to a couple of eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch and a chicken breast for dinner with a few handfuls of almonds and some Greek yogurt as snacks.

Protein quality

Animal sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) are considered to be high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in good amounts. These are the amino acids that the body cannot make and so they are necessary in the diet. Plant based sources of protein tend to lack one or more of these amino acids, however, soya, nuts and legumes make suitable alternatives. If you are following a plant-based diet, try to include and combine as many sources of protein as you can to optimise your intake of amino acids.

Three amino acids, known as BCAA (branched chain amino acids) are particularly effective in stimulating muscle growth and repair. Research shows they can aid recovery after exercise, stimulate protein synthesis and build muscle. The richest food sources are meat, poultry and fish, and they can be found in collagen and whey protein supplements.

Protein to aid weight loss

Protein is one of your strongest allies when it comes to losing weight. Evidence suggests that eating protein can increase the number of calories you burn by boosting your metabolic rate and reducing your appetite. Research has shown that a higher protein diet is able to help prevent weight gain. In one study, a modest increase in protein from 15% to 18% of calories reduced the amount of fat people regained after weight loss by 50%.

See my Midlife recipes for some ideas to boost your protein intake.

Image © [timolina] /Adobe Stock

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