Protein is one of the only nutrients that gets consistently good press. We never hear about people having too much protein; there's no anti-protein lobby. We never hear about protein in the context of protein "versus" something else, in the way that we're still talking about carbs versus fat.
Maybe that's because what we know about the importance of protein has been growing and growing. This has also spurred on a rash of products claiming boosted protein content; we have protein bars and balls; protein-enriched cereals and yoghurt.
Protein is important for health. Proteins are "building blocks" for our bodies; they are in every one of our cells, where they're used to build and repair tissues; to make enzymes and hormones, and to build muscle, bone, cartilage, skin and blood. Protein also makes us feel full; it provides that feeling of satiety.
We get protein from a range of foods including meat, chicken and fish; tofu; eggs; dairy products, nuts, beans and other legumes.
We need a good amount of protein each day for optimal health. For an average woman, it's between 78 and 130 grams (between 15 and 25 per cent of our energy). Most of us would easily get that amount from a normal day's food.
If we don't, though, our bodies might seek it out. There is a theory, widely accepted, known as the protein leverage hypothesis. This says that we need a certain amount of protein to provide that satiety and thus regulate our appetite, and we'll keep eating until we hit it. So if we have lots of low-protein, starchy foods, for example, we may overeat those until our bodies get the protein we need to feel satisfied.
This may be why we have the idea from food marketing that we need to "boost" our protein. But it could be that this is more about marketing than reality. It's called out as a hero ingredient in so many foods, it's easy to get the impression we should be eating more.
But experts say that's probably not the case for most of us.
In fact it is possible to have too much protein. Protein foods contain energy (calories) just like everything else; if we eat too much of these we can store the excess as fat. A very high protein diet can also be bad for health; possibly putting strain on the kidneys and liver. High protein intake has also been linked with digestive issues such as constipation.
That said, there is a group who might need a protein boost: older people. There's emerging evidence that those in their 70s, 80s and older may not be getting enough protein in their diets, and as we get older our protein needs increase, as we need to preserve muscle mass and protect our bones. The tricky part is that for seniors, this often coincides with a declining appetite, so they naturally eat less, making them more at risk of not getting enough. Protein intake is also important for older people if they are recovering from illness or surgery.
Whatever your age, it's a good idea to spread your protein intake out through the day, rather than just load it into your lunch and dinner. Protein at breakfast might come in eggs, yoghurt, milk or nuts. Protein-rich snacks will keep you going between meals, if you're a snacker.
Keep an eye on the protein bars and balls, though. They can be pretty high in sugar and saturated fat, especially if they're loaded with coconut. That means they're also often high in energy; fine if you're after something super-dense or you're in an active job; maybe not great if you're just looking for a post-workout snack or you're in a sedentary job. And some bars and balls are made with processed protein powders and heaps of other additives, which might not be ideal.
We can get plenty of good quality protein from whole foods. At meals, go for small amounts of meat, chicken or fish; tofu and tempeh; beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and edamame; eggs; nuts and seeds. High-protein snacks include boiled eggs; yoghurt; nuts; seeds; cheese; milk; canned tuna and edamame. As with all of the things we need for health, getting it from a wide range of sources is ideal; a really varied diet is a great health insurance policy.