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Woman sat on a exercise mat with dumbbells holding a protein shake

The woman’s guide to protein

28 Nov 2022

Looking to slim down and tone up? Discover how protein can help.

What’s all the buzz around protein? Many women are nervous that chugging back protein shakes will cause them to bulk up like The Hulk, but the truth is quite different.

For not only do women have less testosterone then men (which means putting on muscle is far harder for them) but increasing consumption can actually encourage weight loss rather then vice-versa. Plus, there are plenty of other benefits that come from it, too.

What does protein do?

Protein is responsible not just for building muscle, but it is also needed for the formation of hair, skin (collagen) and nails. It's also responsible for the formation of enzymes hormones and the development of bone, cartilage and blood.

How much protein do I need?

Clearly, we need our protein like we need our oxygen. But how much is too much? Or, perhaps more importantly, how much is too little?

Many people wrongly assume that women don’t have the same protein needs as men. However, how much protein you need isn’t related to gender so much as your overall weight and body mass – how much muscle and fat you carry.

Generally, upping your protein intake will help you build muscle and burn fat, which is the actual process taking place when a person ‘tones up’.

Government guidelines suggest a minimum of 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight to avoid becoming deficient and/or maintain our existing muscle mass.

A 2014 study in The International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that higher intake, more than 2.4g per kilo of body weight in fact, helped calorie-restricted elite athletes lose body fat and maintain muscle1.

If you’re active and trying to lose weight, your protein intake should be around 1.5g per kilo of body weight. This ensures you remain satiated and keep muscle. But, that's sometimes easier than it sounds.

For a 67-70kg (10.5-11st) woman, that’s around 100-110g of protein – 100g of tofu contains 17g of protein and a chicken breast around 30g. That’s why many chose to supplement with a convenient (and tasty) protein powder.

Whey protein

Whey protein, in particular, can be very healthy. No one would bat an eyelid or questions whether drinking a glass of milk is healthy or not. And whey protein, a by-product of cheese making, is pretty much the same thing, bar some flavouring here and there.

Whey protein is about 80% protein and high in essential amino acids, in particular glutamine, and low in calories.

Look out for protein that is especially blended for women - they contain extra vitamins and minerals needed to support general health too.

Diet whey protein

If you’re cutting calories, try diet whey. Containing whey, soy and milk protein that all digest at a slower speed to help you keep fuller for longer.

Vegan Protein

If you have an intolerance to dairy, experience discomfort or bloating after eating it, then whey is best avoided.

Switching to vegan protein such as soy or pea should work better, and still contains plenty of essential amino acids essential for building muscle.

Another good source of protein is a hemp, seed or nut butter. These are natural and delicious but be wary not to eat too much if you’re trying to trim down as nut butters are high in fats and calories. A nut butter is around 9kcals per gram, opposed to proteins 4kcals per gram.

Calorie counting

If you are watching your weight, beware of meticulous calorie counting as it can quickly lead to a self-defeating obsession. If you drop your calories dramatically your body can fight against it. Our DNA is thousands of years old, so if your body thinks it's starving or in famine, it slows the metabolism down and stops effectively burning fat.

In order to develop a healthy relationship with food, it's important to respond to genuine hunger cues and allow ourselves treats every now and again. Remember it's consistency over the long term (including treat days!) that get the results in the end.

Working out will help you achieve the sleek, athletic look you may be after as long as you’re eating enough protein and keeping active – try lifting weights, either a dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell or your own body weight.

High protein foods

Here’s how to pack 100-120g of protein into your day:

Breakfast – 3-egg omelette with peppers and spinach - 15-20g of protein

Snack – Diet whey shake. 1 scoop – 17g of protein

Lunch – Mozzarella or chicken and avocado salad – 35g of protein

Snack – Rice cakes and 1 tablespoon of nut butter – 5g of protein

Dinner – Salmon or Quorn fillet with vegetables – 15-25g of protein

Dessert – 170g Greek yoghurt with honey and berries – 15g of protein

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Last updated: 15 April 2020

Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.