Proteins are complex molecules, made up of long chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. Your body can make some amino acids, but there are others it can't make. You can only get these from your diet – they are called essential amino acids.
Proteins are found in foods that come from animals, including meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. You can also get them from non-animal sources such as cereal products, soya products, beans and pulses. Proteins that come from animal sources usually include all the essential amino acids, while those that come from plant sources may not. If you don't eat food from animals, you should still be able to get all the amino acids you need by eating a good range of plant-based proteins.
Protein is essential for the ongoing growth and repair of all tissues in your body. It's also a source of energy, along with carbohydrate and fat. Proteins have a number of other important functions around the body – here are some of the main ones.
- Structure – protein makes up most of the structural tissues in your body, such as skin and muscle.
- Transport – proteins act as carriers for various molecules and nutrients in your blood.
- Hormones – many hormones are made of protein (for example, insulin which helps to control your blood sugar levels).
- Enzymes – these proteins have various functions in your body, such as helping with digestion.
- Immune system – antibodies are proteins that are produced when your body needs to fight off an infection.
It's recommended that adults should have 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For an adult weighing 70kg (11 stone), this works out as 52.5g of protein per day. Children and teens need less, and women need more during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
What does this amount of protein look like in terms of the food you eat? Having a couple of portions of protein-rich foods a day, along with some dairy foods, should give you the amount you need. Examples include the following.
- One medium (90g) chicken breast.
- A 140g portion of fish.
- Two medium-sized eggs.
- A 200g serving of baked beans.
Most people in the UK get more than enough protein in their diet. But taking in too much of any food that gives you energy – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – can cause you to put on weight. So while you need to include protein in your diet, it's important to eat these foods in moderation.
See our information on portion sizes for more information.
In the UK, the largest proportion of our protein comes from meat (especially red meat), followed by cereals and cereal products, and then milk and milk products. The trouble with this is that while meat is an excellent source of protein, it can also be high in fat, especially saturated fat. Dairy products can also be high in fat. Too much fat in your diet can lead to health problems such as obesity and heart disease.
It's best to enjoy a range of healthy sources of protein while trying to avoid having too much saturated fat. Here are some tips on where to start.
- Choose lean cuts of meat, including lean mince. Cut any visible fat off your meat, and take the skin off chicken.
- Grill meat and fish rather than frying.
- Don't have more than 70g of red meat a day (or limit how many days of the week you have it).
- Don't eat too much processed meat like sausages, bacon and burgers – these are high in fat and salt.
- Lentils and beans are a great alternative to meat, as they're high in fibre, protein and vitamins and minerals, as well as being low-fat. Try substituting meat with lentils or beans in curries, stews and soups.
- Try to include two portions of fish a week (including one oily fish like salmon, mackerel or trout).
- Go for lower-fat dairy products like milk or cheese. Or if you prefer the full-fat versions, have smaller amounts or have them less often.
- Macronutrients and energy balance. Oxford handbook of nutrition and dietetics (online). Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, updated December 2015
- National Diet and Nutrition Survey Results from Years 1, 2, 3 and 4 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009 – 2011/2012). Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency, published May 2014. www.gov.uk
- Exploring nutrients. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk
- The Eatwell Guide. Public Health England, July 2016. www.gov.uk
- Nutrition requirements, British Nutrition Foundation, revised October 2017. www.nutrition.org.uk
- McCance and Widdowson's composition of foods integrated dataset. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published 25 March 2015
- What is energy? British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, last reviewed 1 November 2016
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Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, January 2018
Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due January 2021
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