Perplexed about protein? Meat or plant, which is best?

Story at a glance

  • Include a wide variety of protein foods in your daily diet; meat, fish, poultry, dairy foods, pulses, nuts and seeds

  • The palm of your hand is a good guide to a portion of meat, include 2-3 portions per day

  • Go ‘meat free’ one day a week


What is protein?

You might think that protein is found mostly in meat, chicken, fish and shellfish; actually there is protein in many other foods. Beans, peas, nuts, seeds, lentils, quinoa, oats, tofu, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt all provide protein too. It is needed for growth and repair of muscle tissues and cells. Enzymes, hormones and antibodies are all types of proteins. The protein that we eat is broken down by digestion into amino acids and then absorbed into the blood, this provides the body with what it needs to build new proteins in the body. 

There are protein foods that provide the complete range of amino acids and some that don’t. Protein from animal sources provides all the amino acids your body requires, most plant proteins don’t provide the full complement of amino acids which is why a variety of protein foods should be eaten each day to make sure that the full range of amino acids are obtained.  


How much do we need?

Men need more than women, 45g per day for women and 55g per day for men. The difference in the protein needs is due to the fact that, most men have a greater muscle mass than women. Being active increases protein needs and protein requirements are greater during childhood for growth, and, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Convalescence can also increase protein needs. In order to get the full range of amino acids we should all eat a variety of protein foods. 


What is a portion though?

There is very little guidance in the UK regarding portion sizes of protein foods, however, here is Vanessa’s guide-

  • A portion of any meat should be the size of the palm of your hand (not your fingers). Roughly the size of a deck of playing cards. 

  • 2 eggs

  • 3 tablespoons baked beans

  • 2 tablespoons (60g) nuts/nut products e.g. peanut butter 

If you eat this portion size of protein at each meal it is better than having large amounts in one sitting as it is easier for the body to process ‘little and often’. 

Many people eat meat most days but there are some superstars that are often overlooked…. Chickpeas, kidney beans, quinoa, lentils, nuts and seeds are really beneficial for health and they all provide protein too; vegetarians and vegans know all about this! Plant foods also contain dietary fibre and we eat too little fibre in the UK.  Including plant sources of protein is a good way to increase fibre intake. Need another reason to try more pulses? They are an inexpensive source of protein; baked beans on toast anyone?!

So, how can we eat more of these foods on a daily basis? Have a handful of nuts as a snack, an omelette and salad for dinner (particularly good when you’re short of time); try adding toasted seeds to dressed salads, have fish once or twice a week in place of meat with vegetables for supper, add more kidney beans to your chilli con carne and cut down on the meat; try lentils, they are so versatile, try adding them to Bolognese sauce and cottage pie. 

If we eat too much protein it can cause the body to lose calcium which could lead to bone loss and osteoporosis in the long term. As long as we eat 2-3 portions of different protein foods every day we will get enough, deficiency in the UK is uncommon. Deficiency of protein can occur in people who are dieting to lose weight or in adults who may have a poor diet. 

Do you ever plan your meals? Planning meals is a great way of getting the balance right, try to include two main meals per week with fish, include more meat free sources of protein but don’t forget foods such as red meat, they provide us with a great source of iron in addition to protein.

Would you consider yourself a ‘flexitarian’? (This means someone who eats meat infrequently and includes plant foods regularly; semi vegetarian). Many people are eating more plant based diets and there is evidence to suggest that this is a great thing for health, we should be careful not to demonise meat though, it is nutritious, it contains protein and many micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron, protein, chromium, phosphorus and zinc. Perhaps consider going ‘meat free’ one night a week? 


Protein filled meal ideas

  • Scrambled/boiled/poached eggs and toast

  • Baked beans on toast

  • Natural yogurt with fruit and a tablespoon of seeds

  • Sausage/bacon and tomato sandwich 

  • Superfood smoothie with plant based milk and ground almonds 

  • Vegetable omelette and salad

  • Jacket potato and tuna/baked beans/ chilli con carne/ prawns/cottage cheese

  • Meat/chicken/fish/egg/cheese/houmous and carrot salad sandwiches

  • Chicken skewers and roasted root vegetables

  • Stir fried tofu/beef/chicken/duck with noodles and vegetables

  • Spaghetti Bolognese made with minced beef and lentils served with a salad

  • Beef burger, sweet potato wedges and salad

  • Chicken Caesar/ tuna nicoise/ Greek feta cheese salad

  • ‘Heathy’ fish ‘n’ chips – Baked trout/salmon/ cod, potato wedges and a large portion of garden peas

  •  Chicken curry (with red lentils) and rice and salad

  • Bean and vegetable paella

  • Tofu and pine nut stuffed peppers

  • Chickpea curry and rice

  • Chorizo, tomato and bean pasta

  • Cottage pie (with green lentils) and lots of steamed greens 

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