• Emma Nuttall

Are high protein diets healthy?

Updated: Oct 21

And is protein powder good for you?



Why is protein so important?


In recent years, the popularity of paleo and grain free diets and the variety of protein bars, and shakes on offer, has resulted in many people increasing their daily protein intake. Protein is a very important macronutrient. It’s required for cell growth and repair, making antibodies for immune protection and the synthesis of enzymes, neurotransmitters and other important hormones.


What happens if you eat too much protein?


As with all foods, too much is not always a good thing. Very high protein intake has been linked with increased inflammation and alterations in the gut microbiome.[i] Although there is less chance of negative consequences in healthy people, increased risk of cancer and overburdened kidneys are also indicated.[ii]


The most common issue with a high protein diet is that excess protein often indicates deficiency in another important food group. To put it simply, if you're eating high levels of protein, there may not be enough room in your diet to meet adequate intakes of nutrient dense, gut loving veggies. Its therefore best to keep protein intake within the recommended levels.


How much protein should I eat each day?


The recommended daily intake of protein is 0.84gms per kg of body weight per day for a male and 0.75gms per kg of body weight per day for a female. If you're a 40 year old female weighing 68 kg for example, you need 51g of protein daily. [iii]


Pregnant women, children and the elderly have slightly higher requirements.


Athletes may have higher protein requirements as they are building and repairing muscle at a faster rate however it is generally only elite athletes and body builders who need to increase their intake significantly.


What type of protein should I eat?


Protein intake should make up between 10-35% of total food energy and can come from a mixture of plant and animal sources. Examples include lean meat, eggs, tofu, quinoa, natural unsweetened yoghurt, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and cows milk.


Animal proteins are complete proteins, which means they have all the essential amino acids your body needs. Plant proteins, except for a few like quinoa and soy, are usually low or deficient in at least one of the essential amino acids. Therefore, if you are vegetarian, it’s important to eat a variety of plant-based proteins daily to ensure you get all the essential amino acids in your diet.


Plant-based sources of protein are a healthy addition to your diet as they are generally also rich in a variety of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals, so even if you're not vegetarian, including plant-based sources is recommended.


When consuming animal protein, always aim for lean, high quality sources and grass fed where possible.


How often should I eat protein?


The key is to spread protein consumption throughout the day, consuming approximately 20-25g of high quality, lean protein at each meal.


An 80g steak or a 100g chicken breast contains around 20 grams of protein. One cup of cooked lentils has approximately 18 grams of protein and can be accompanied by other high protein plant foods such as quinoa or tofu to reach the desired protein intake.


What are some high protein snack foods?


Here are some healthy and filling snack ideas:

  • apple slices with peanut butter

  • protein bliss balls

  • edamame

  • roasted chickpeas

  • cashew & chia pudding

  • boiled eggs

  • berries chocolate nut butter

  • protein smoothie

  • high protein unsweetened yoghurt with seeds

  • veggie sticks and cottage cheese


Is protein powder bad for you?


Some vegetarian clients I've worked with report that they sometimes struggle to meet their recommended daily protein intake and in these cases I often recommend a high quality, plant-based protein powder.


I'm often asked the question as to whether protein powder is good for you. I'm not suggesting protein powder as a regular meal replacement however it can be a helpful way to boost the protein content of a dish that's typically low in protein.


If you're having a berry and banana smoothie for breakfast for example, adding a high-quality protein powder can get you closer to meeting your daily intake requirements as well as keeping you feeling full for longer. Consuming protein triggers the secretion of hormones that help us to feel full and decreases ghrelin, our ‘hunger hormone.’ [iiii]


Also adding a source of healthy fat such as avocado, seeds or a nut butter, helps to keep you full for longer, balance blood sugar levels and promote the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.


Which protein powder is best?


As with all manufactured food products, there are high quality and low quality options. Some protein powders are quite high in sugar, and some have been shown to contain toxic chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides and bisphenol-A (BPA). [v] Look for a protein powder that doesn't contain additives or sweeteners, includes wholefood nutrients and organic ingredients are always a plus. I have included a link to the protein powder I personally use. It's heavy metal tested and free from any synthetic chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers and GMOs.


Affiliate link disclosure: If you purchase via this link, I may earn a small commission. Please know that I only include resources I personally recommend and truly feel will deliver value to you.


On days when I don't meet my daily protein intake through my main meals, I like to whip myself up a protein smoothie.


Clean Green Protein Smoothie

  • 2 large handfuls of leafy greens (I generally mix and rotate rocket, spinach, cos, kale, parsley and/or coriander)

  • I frozen banana

  • 1/4 of an avocado

  • 1 pitted date

  • 1 cup filtered water

  • 1 scoop of plant-based protein powder

The key to this recipe is that the banana must be frozen. Just adding ice doesn’t give it the same creamy consistency.


Should I eat protein for breakfast?


My answer to that question is a resounding 'yes'. As I mentioned earlier, protein keeps you feeling full for longer by triggering satiety hormones. By including protein in your breakfast, you are less likely to snack throughout the day. If you include roughly 20g (subject to gender and weight) of protein at each main meal, you may be less likely to engage in mindless snacking after dinner (something many of us currently are, or have been, familiar with at some stage!).


What type of protein should I eat for breakfast?


I personally alternate between overnight oats with nuts, seeds and a high protein yoghurt or a veggie loaded omelette. On days when I’m rushed, I’ll make my Clean Green Protein Smoothie to drink in the car. I have also been known to eat left over salmon and greens for breakfast too.


It's important that the dish is palatable to you, and therefore enjoyable. Then you are more likely to adopt it as an ongoing healthy lifestyle change. A reminder to add veggies or fruit to the dish for extra nutrients and antioxidants, and a serve of healthy fat like avocado, nuts or seeds.


Are protein bars healthy?


I'm also regularly asked about the health benefits of protein bars Protein bars are essentially a processed food item and I will always recommend choosing a wholefood option over processed food wherever possible. 'Real food' is always best as it offers nutrients in a more bioavailable form and doesn’t contain emulsifiers, processed fats and other additives. A piece of fruit and a handful of nuts is generally my go-to snack.


How much protein should I eat after exercise?


In order to stimulate muscle synthesis following strength training, it is recommended that 20-25 grams of protein is consumed within 1-4 hours after exercise. Unless exercise takes place after dinner, this can be factored into the existing protein intake during meals. Numerous studies have confirmed that 20-25g is the optimal amount for maximal muscle synthesis and exceeding this amount does not offer additional benefits . [vi]


If paleo or grain free is the preferred style of eating, a well-balanced diet can be achieved if the recommended levels of vegetables, fruit, fibre and healthy fats are also met.


Visit this page to find out how how many carbs you should eat daily.