You’ve probably noticed it. Protein powder, protein shakes, protein bars, high-protein desserts … protein is everywhere these days. But what has protein actually done to deserve all this hype?
In this guide, we’re diving deep into protein – what it is, what it does, where you can get it, and how you can be a planet-lover on a high-protein diet.
Protein 101 - what it is and why you need it
Protein is an essential nutrient that your body needs to to stay healthy and work the way it should. There are more than 10,000 types of protein, which make up your hair, nails, bones, muscles, and organs.
Protein is also a critical part of the processes that fuel your energy and carry oxygen throughout your body in your blood. It also helps make antibodies that fight off infections and illnesses and helps keep cells healthy and create new ones. In short, protein is one of the building blocks that make you into who you are.
Protein is found in a wide range of food and it’s important that you get enough protein every day. How much protein you need from your diet varies depending on your weight, gender, age, and health. Most people can easily meet their protein needs through a healthy and varied diet.
How much protein should you eat?
Unlike carbohydrates and fat, the body cannot store protein and will simply get rid of any excess (more on that later). Therefore, the most effective way of meeting your daily protein requirement is to eat small amounts at every meal.
Recommendations for protein:
According to Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, the recommended daily servings for protein are:
2 - 65 years old
0.8-1.5 grams of protein per. kg body weight per day (depending on activity levels).
Over 65 years old
1.1–1.3 grams of protein per kg body weight per day (depending on activity levels).
For example, if you are under 65 years old and weigh 62kg, then you need 50-93 grams of protein per day, depending on your activity levels.
Simply put, most people should get 10% to 35% of their calories each day in the form of protein. You need more calories for activities like biking, lifting weights, or running, but the percentage of protein remains in the same range.
Can you get too much protein?
One common misconception about protein, especially in the fitness industry, is “the more protein, the more muscle mass”. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
As mentioned earlier, the body is not able to store protein. This means that if you eat more protein than your body needs, it will simply excrete the rest. Protein can be excreted through sweat, dandruff, and feces, but most of it is actually processed in the kidneys and ends up in your toilet as urine. Too much protein can therefore put an unnecessary strain on your kidneys. This is especially true if you have kidney problems, in which case you should be extra careful with your protein intake.
It’s worth noting that most people who eat a healthy and varied diet will get adequate levels of protein.
Aside from potentially putting a strain on the kidneys, there is no indication that an excessive intake will have a negative impact on health. However, it is always recommended to stay within the daily recommended limits, and to speak to your doctor if in doubt.
Quality over Quantity
Protein is present in almost all foods – though in varying amounts. However, the source of protein should be of good quality, and what does that mean?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Nine of the amino acids that the body needs are called 'essential amino acids'. These are amino acids that the body cannot produce itself, and instead you must get them from your diet.
Protein-rich foods vary in types and amounts of amino acids, and especially the essential amino acids determine the degree of what is called protein quality.
For a food to be considered a “high quality protein”, it should contain an appropriate composition of essential amino acids (high amino acid score) and has a good digestibility.
Animal protein sources score both high on the amino acid score and digestibility. Only very few plant foods score high on the amino acid score and digestibility, so these can advantageously be combined to achieve a better score on the amino acid score.
Buffalo beetles vs. juicy steak – a question of sustainability
When we talk about protein, we typically think of big juicy steaks, chicken breasts, eggs, yoghurt, cottage cheese, etc – a lot of animal products. It makes sense: animal proteins are a super good and easy source of protein.
However, animal proteins are unfortunately really bad news for our planet. The meat industry as a whole, but especially cattle, is a huge sinner when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Numbers from the ‘Great Climate Database’ show that just one kilo of beef emits 32.51kg of CO2 per 1kg of meat, and it takes no less than 15,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef.
There's a Danish saying that goes, “There is no cow on the ice”. It means that “there’s no danger” or “no need to worry”. We hate to say it, but there's definitely a cow on the ice now. And also, the ice is melting. Shouldn’t we just let the poor cow live in peace?
Luckily for us (and the cows), there are countless of other delicious protein-rich meat substitutes nowadays. All it takes is just being a little curious and open-minded!
Take insect protein, for example. Insects are very high in protein, and contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs, just like other animal meats. But they also have the benefit of being incredibly climate friendly and high in fibre – just like plants!
For reference, 1kg of insect protein emits just 0.86kg of CO2, and only requires 5 liters of water per kilo. What a difference compared to beef!
Along with plant-based sources of protein such as soy, peas, and beans, insect protein is part of the climate-friendly shift away from traditional animal proteins.
Comparison of protein, per 100g:
Quark 0.2% fat = 11 g
Tofu = 13.3 g
Cottage cheese = 13.6 g
Pea protein mince = 16.4 g
Hey Planet Mince = 18 g
Beef mince = 19.4 g
Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012 – Link
Protein Levels in Different Food Products, Frida Food Data, Fødevarestyrelsen – Link
Protein Recommendations for Adults – Link
Vidensbank: Protein, Sportshojskolen.dk – Link
Concito, Danmarks Grønne Tænketank – Link
Greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food product, Our World in Data – Link