Protein: what you need to know

Alongside carbohydrates and fat, protein is one of the three key nutrients. Your body needs protein to build and maintain muscle, among other things. Your daily needs depend on your age and weight.

01.03.2021

Lara Brunner

Proteins come in several different configurations. They are nitrogen-containing organic compounds made up of chains of amino acids that vary in length. Your body is continually breaking down proteins and building new ones. Protein is very filling. In addition, your body needs energy to digest protein, and uses up about a quarter of calories consumed for this very purpose. 

What does the body need protein for?

Your body uses protein for energy, among other functions. This mainly happens when there is a deficit in other sources of energy, such as carbohydrates. There are 4 (kilo)calories in each gram of protein. They mainly provide our bodies with important amino acids, however, of which there are 21 altogether. Our bodies need them to build their own proteins for muscle mass, hormones or enzymes. There are nine essential amino acids. They are essential precisely because your body cannot produce them itself, whereas your body can produce non-essential amino acids on its own. We thus don’t need nearly as many of these from food.

  • Alanine: gelatin, meat, soya, dairy products
  • Asparagine: asparagus, legumes, potatoes, grains
  • Aspartic acid: asparagus, legumes, fish, meat
  • Glutamic acid: fish, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, soya
  • Glycine: sweeteners (flavour enhancer E640)
  • Proline: meat, dairy products

  • Histidine: tuna, salmon, fillet meat, cheese, soya beans, peanuts, wheat germ
  • Isoleucine: meat, fish, nuts, legumes
  • Leucine: wheat germ, peanuts, tuna, beef fillet
  • Lysine: meat, fish, soya beans, lentils
  • Methionine: fish, green vegetables, meat, rice
  • Phenylalanine: vegetables, nuts, wheat germ, dairy products, meat, fish
  • Threonine: meat, fish, peas, soya beans, nuts
  • Tryptophan: meat, dairy products, fish, nuts, legumes, chocolate, bananas
  • Valine: legumes, grains, poultry, beef, salmon, eggs, walnuts

  • Arginine: nuts, soya beans, buckwheat, pork, chicken, fish
  • Cysteine: dairy products, meat, eggs, cabbage, corn, oats, onions, garlic
  • Glutamine: quark, dairy products, soya, wheat, meat
  • Serine: soya beans, peanuts, grains
  • Tyrosine: dairy products, meat, peas, soya beans

*Become essential in specific situations, such as illness.

What is whey protein?

Whey protein is protein derived from whey. Whey is a by-product of cheese production. Whey protein contains all essential amino acids. Your digestive tract can therefore absorb it quickly. Athletes often turn to whey protein when they want to build muscle. Whey protein is also used as a nutritional supplement if protein intake is inadequate, as a result of, for example, loss of appetite or cancer. Large quantities can cause gastrointestinal issues. Whey protein’s clinical efficacy remains controversial to this day.

What are the differences between plant and animal proteins?

Plant and animal proteins are composed of the same amino acids. They differ, however, in the number of amino acids and their biological value. The pattern of amino acids in animal cells is comparable to the pattern in human cells. Your body can therefore absorb protein from animal sources particularly quickly. This does not mean, however, that plant proteins are worse. In contrast to animal proteins, plant proteins often contain less sulphur, saturated fats and cholesterol.

  • Sources of plant protein: legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, soya beans, lupins, beans), Quorn meat substitute, seitan, tofu, grains (rolled oats, millet, buckwheat, spelt), nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almonds)
  • Sources of animal protein: meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products

Proteins and biological value

Biological value (BV) indicates the quality of proteins. Since essential amino acids – meaning those that the body can’t produce by itself – are found primarily in animal protein, these tend to have a higher BV than plant-based sources of protein. The higher the value, the easier it is for the body to convert dietary protein into endogenous protein. Smaller quantities are thus needed to provide the necessary amount of amino acids.

Good to know

  • BV does not indicate how much protein a foodstuff contains. For example, potatoes have a greater value than poultry. When you measure the BV per 100 grams, however, poultry contains considerably more protein.
  • Eggs have a BV of 100 as a reference. If you combine different foodstuffs, you can increase your meal’s BV. BV can thus exceed 100. An example: eggs and milk combined have a BV of 119.

How many grams of protein do you need per day?

Your daily recommended intake of protein depends on body weight and age. The amounts below (in grams) are per kilogram of body weight per day.

Age group

Men

Women

Children and young people, 4 to 15 years old

0,9 g

0,9 g

Young people, 15 to 19 years old

0,9 g

0,8 g

Adults, 19 to 65 years old

0,8 g

0,8 g

Adults, aged 65 and older

1 g

1 g

Pregnant

-

0.9 g (second trimester)

1.0 g (third trimester)

Breastfeeding

-

1,2 g

For example, 10 grams of protein are contained in (approximate amounts):

  • 20 grams of dried meat
  • 35 grams of poultry
  • 40 grams of full-fat Appenzeller cheese
  • 40 grams of almonds
  • 45 grams of smoked salmon
  • 50 grams of minced meat
  • 55 grams of dried chickpeas
  • 80 grams of low-fat quark
  • 1.5 eggs
  • 120 grams of wholemeal bread

Good to know: Competitive athletes often require increased amounts.

Optimal nutrition for building muscle

Recipe for a simple and protein-rich raspberry dessert

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp honey
  • 4 tbsp mineral water
  • 200 g low-fat quark
  • 200 g raspberries
  • 1 dash lime juice

Preparation

  1. Defrost the raspberries. Then press them through a sieve.
  2. Stir the quark with the mineral water, honey and lime juice until it is creamy.
  3. Combine the quark with the raspberries.

Nutritional value per portion

  • Calories: 220
  • Protein: 27 g
  • Fat: 1 g
  • Carbohydrates: 33 g

You can find more recipes in the free Helsana Coach app.

How to eat a diet rich in protein

A diet rich in protein supports your immune system and helps build muscle. It also increases your metabolism and burns fat. It is therefore recommended that 20 to 25 per cent of your daily calories come from protein.

If you eat a balanced and varied diet, you won’t need any protein shakes. There are plenty of sources of protein in animal and plant-based food. By making sure that every meal contains a source of protein, you’ll give your body the nutrition it needs. In addition, the protein will keep you feeling full for longer.

Can you consume too much protein?

Any excess protein not used by your body is simply converted into energy. Neither the Swiss Society for Nutrition nor the World Health Organization have given an official recommendation for the maximum amount of protein you can consume. However, various studies indicate that consuming more than 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may damage the kidneys. 

Sarah Ehmer, health management expert Sarah Ehmer, health management expert

Sarah Ehmer, health management expert

Sarah Ehmer (Msc in Health Education) joined Helsana in 2019. As a health management specialist, she helps customers engage with prevention and health promotion. Sarah Ehmer gave the editorial team advice and input for this article.

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