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How to keep your protein factory working

26 February 2019

Professor Louise Burke OAM, Chief of Nutrition Strategy, Australian Institute of Sport

Many people are confused by the messages around dietary protein. Should we eat more? Do we already consume too much? What food sources are the best? These questions can enjoy more complicated answers, but a simplified overview can tell most of the story.

The proteins in our bodies target a range of roles - for example, structure (e.g. our bones and skin), movement (e.g. our muscles and tendons) and function and health (e.g. enzymes, hormones and immune proteins). These proteins are constantly being broken down and the protein we eat helps the rebuilding process in two ways. First, one of the specific amino acids from which protein is made (called leucine), acts as a switch to turn on the protein building machinery in our cells. Secondly, all of the amino acids serve as the building blocks from which the new body proteins are assembled. Exercise is a separate and powerful promoter of protein synthesis, with each workout stimulating the building of proteins favourable for that exercise for 24 hours.

The ideal scenario is that dietary protein partners with exercise to optimise the outcome of each recovery period. This helps to understand the problem with our current eating practices around protein. Typically, our diets provide more protein than we actually need, but we don’t spread it out in a pattern to optimise the protein building pathways.

In an ideal world, we would consume a new supply every 3-5 hours to keep our “protein factories” working around the clock. Instead, most Australians eat a large amount in our evening meal and fail to meet the demand over the rest of the day. Therefore, new guidelines promote a redistribution of high quality protein foods (those containing leucine and all the amino acids) over the day into 3 meals and 1-2 snacks (particularly, a post-exercise boost). We don’t need a large amount at each occasion - around 20 g is a good target. This can be found in 80-100g of steak or chicken breast (a very small piece), 500 ml of standard milk, 2-3 eggs, 80 g cheese or mixes and matches of animal and plant protein sources. In practical terms, most Australians need to increase the protein at breakfast and a well-planned snack in the day, and can afford to reduce the serve size at dinner.

Dairy foods are particularly helpful in allowing quick changes to be achieved since there are plenty of choices that can align with our menu preferences. It also explains the value of protein-enriched dairy sources such Greek yoghurt or higher protein milks where a protein target can be met in a more reasonable serve (eg. 1 carton of yoghurt or 1 cup of milk).

While many of us could do with a “dietary make-over” to rethink the type and amount of protein-rich foods in our day, products like The Complete Dairy milks can provide both a quick fix and a long term contribution to a better protein pattern.

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