Protein-rich food is on everyone's lips. More and more food manufacturers advertise with "rich in protein", "rich in protein" or in the popular English variant with "high protein". But what exactly is high-protein food and why is it considered so healthy? Is there really more to this hype?
If you are interested in this topic, this article is made for you! Because we will now answer these and many other questions worth knowing about protein-rich nutrition and summarize them concisely. We rely on scientific articles and studies.
the essentials in brief
- There are special requirements for the label "rich in protein". According to this, a food can only be explicitly described as high in protein if at least 20% of the calories it contains consist of proteins.
- Proteins are made up of amino acids. These are important for health as they are involved in numerous processes in the body. The body cannot produce some of these amino acids itself, so they have to be ingested through food.
- Because of the effect it has on the body, everyone should make sure they are getting enough protein. Those who are particularly active in sports can benefit from a protein-rich diet.
High protein food: What you should know
In this section, we will give you precise answers to the most important questions about high-protein food. You will get a good overview of this diet and will know exactly what to look out for in the future.
What is high protein food?
First of all, you should know that proteins are macronutrients along with carbohydrates and fats. Proteins, also known as albumen, consist of amino acids which are linked to one another by chemical compounds. They are required for numerous processes in the body. But more on that later!
A distinction is made between essential and non-essential amino acids. Without wanting to delve deeper into the matter at this point, it is still worth knowing that essential amino acids must be ingested through food. Compared to non-essential amino acids, the body cannot produce them itself.
According to the EU Health Claims Regulation, foods can only be described as high in protein if at least twenty percent of the calories they contain consist of protein. (1)
Which foods are high in protein?
Proteins are not only found in animal foods. Vegetable products can also have a high protein content. In the following table you will find some selected foods that can naturally score with their high protein content.
|Groceries||Protein content per 100g|
It should be noted that this is rough information. In principle, it should also be noted that the protein structure of the food can be changed by heating or germinating, so that its function is restricted.
Animal and vegetable foods can differ in their amino acid profile, i.e. the composition of the proteins. Studies have concluded that animal products tend to have a higher proportion of essential amino acids and are therefore more valuable to the body. (2,3,4)
The biological value indicates how well the body can convert the proteins contained in the food into endogenous proteins. A combination of different foods containing protein can increase the biological value, so that vegetable protein sources can also achieve a higher biological value.
Why are high-protein foods so healthy?
Proteins are important for the body. During digestion, they are broken down into amino acids and reassembled. They are needed in many ways in our organism. In addition to fat and water, our body consists largely of proteins.
Proteins are essential for a well-functioning immune system. Antibodies are made up of them and protect the body from bacteria or viruses. Furthermore, in the form of enzymes, they serve as biocatalysts that trigger metabolic reactions. Proteins such as collagen and keratin are components of our hair, nails and connective tissue.
Protein has numerous functions in our body. It is therefore important to ensure sufficient protein intake. (Image Source: Caroline Attwood / Unsplash)
Proteins also play an important role in our hormonal balance. Many hormones are made of them, such as insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. In addition, there are so-called transport proteins in our body that transport vitamins, trace elements or other substances. Not to be forgotten is the effect of proteins on muscle building and maintenance.
How much protein does the body need?
The German Society for Nutrition (DGE) has published reference values for the various age groups. (5) At this point we have presented the most important data in a summarized table.
|age group||Protein requirement in g per kg body weight|
|Infants (0 to under 12 months)||1.3 to 2.5g|
|Children and young people (1 to under 19 years)||0.8 to 1.0g|
|Adults (19 to 64 years)||0.8g|
|Seniors (from 65 years)||1.0g|
|pregnant women||0.9 to 1.0g|
The values are recommendations for people of normal weight. People who are overweight do not have an increased need for proteins. Although athletes are not explicitly listed in this table, they too may have increased protein requirements. Depending on physical exertion and frequency of activity, a protein intake of 1.2 to 2.0 g per kg of body weight should be aimed for. (6)
What happens when you eat too much protein?
One often hears the statement that an increased protein intake can have a negative effect on the kidneys. This is only partially true. Studies have shown that high-protein foods do not cause problems in healthy people without kidney damage. (7)
Kidney problems can be aggravated.
People with kidney disease, on the other hand, should be careful when consuming protein. If the consumer already suffers from kidney problems before ingesting protein-containing products, this can indeed lead to a deterioration in health. (8th)
This is due to the fact that ammonia is produced when the amino acids are broken down in the body. This substance is toxic and useless for the body and is converted into urea by the liver. The kidneys filter and purify the blood. The urea is excreted in the urine. With an increased protein intake, the kidneys have to work harder. With reduced performance of these organs, a protein-rich diet is therefore not ideal.
Some studies also show that high consumption of animal proteins can lead to an increased risk of death. (9,10) It is therefore important to strive for a balanced diet that also includes plant-based proteins.
When should you eat high protein?
Increasing protein intake can have particular benefits depending on when you take it. When you should eat a protein-rich diet depends on your personal preferences.
Basically, it can be said that a protein-rich breakfast is considered to fill you up for the whole day. This is due to the fact that protein has a positive effect on the hunger hormone ghrelin and lowers it, while the concentration of the satiety hormone leptin increases. (11)
For exercise enthusiasts, it can be beneficial to provide the body with protein prior to exercise. The branched-chain amino acids ( BCAAs ) contained in many protein-rich foods are branched-chain amino acids that have a positive effect on the glycogen stores in the muscles.
Eating protein-rich foods before exercise can lead to better performance.
Glycogen is needed to provide the body with energy. Consequently, a high glycogen concentration creates an advantage for the supply of energy in the muscle. Therefore, there may be an increase in performance during training. (12)
A protein-rich diet is also recommended after training, as the energy reserves in the muscles are then used up. Proteins are needed to promote muscle growth and repair small tears in muscle fibers. Eating protein-rich food before bed can promote recovery and also muscle growth. (13)
Who Should Eat High Protein?
In principle, everyone should eat a diet rich in protein, since the essential amino acids contained in it are not produced by the body itself, but are required. If you do not eat a high-protein diet, this can promote side effects such as muscle breakdown or an immune deficiency. Athletes in particular need a protein-rich diet, as it not only influences muscle building but also the energy supply.
People with a previous kidney disease should avoid a protein-rich diet or clarify this with their doctor, since studies, as already mentioned, show that kidney problems can be aggravated by protein-rich food.
Can you lose weight with high protein food?
Proteins have a high thermal effect. This effect, which is also abbreviated as TEF (thermic effect of food), indicates how many calories are needed to digest the food and process the nutrients. Proteins burn a lot of calories during digestion and stimulate the metabolism. They contribute to fat burning and weight loss. (14.15)
They are also considered to be true fillers and help build muscle . Since muscle mass burns more calories than fat tissue, a high-protein diet has a positive effect on weight loss. This effect can be enhanced above all if physical exercise is combined with a high protein intake.
How to prepare high protein food?
There are numerous preparation options that are high in protein. Whether sweet or savory, vegan, vegetarian or animal, there is a suitable preparation for every taste! For example, what do you think of a delicious tuna and feta salad? A high-protein chilli con carne can also be easily served as chili sin carne and convinces with plant-based protein sources.
You can now find protein-rich recipes in almost every fitness magazine or on the Internet. There are even a large number of cookbooks that explicitly specialize in recipes containing protein.
A note if you don't feel like cooking yourself: some restaurants and delivery services are now including options for high-protein dishes on their menus!
What alternatives are there to high-protein foods?
In addition to conventional foods, dietary supplements can also be a good way to adequately cover protein requirements. Athletes in particular like to use this variant.
- vegetable protein powder: usually consists of peas, rice or soy. It is suitable for vegans but also for people with a lactose intolerance.
- animal protein powder: mostly consists of whey and is therefore not lactose-free. Unlike plant-based protein powder, it has a complete amino acid profile.
Protein powders are an alternative to high-protein foods. This is available on a plant or animal basis. (Image source: HowToGym / Unsplash)
Compared to vegetable protein powder, animal protein powder has a complete amino acid profile. (3) If the amino acid profile is not completely covered, this can lead to the essential amino acid content not being sufficient to supply the body.
In summary, it can be said that proteins are involved in vital bodily processes and our body consists of them to a large extent. Since the body cannot produce essential amino acids itself, care should be taken to ensure an adequate supply of protein. Depending on age and physical activity, protein requirements can vary.
If you consume enough proteins, this can also affect your feeling of satiety and even have a positive effect on losing weight. Since there are a wide variety of preparation methods, both purely plant-based and animal-based, you can eat your protein-rich food in a wide variety of forms.
- ec.europa.eu: Permitted Nutrition Claims Source
- Berrazaga I, Micard V, Gueugneau M, Walrand S. The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. nutrients. 2019;11(8):1825. Published 2019 Aug 7. doi:10.3390/nu11081825 Source
- Hertzler SR, Lieblein-Boff JC, Weiler M, Allgeier C. Plant Proteins: Assessing Their Nutritional Quality and Effects on Health and Physical Function. nutrients. 2020;12(12):3704. Published 2020 Nov 30. doi:10.3390/nu12123704 Source
- Lim MT, Pan BJ, Toh DWK, Sutanto CN, Kim JE. Animal Protein versus Plant Protein in Supporting Lean Mass and Muscle Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. nutrients. 2021;13(2):661. Published 2021 Feb 18. doi:10.3390/nu13020661 Source
- DGE: Reference Values for Protein Intake Source
- König D, Carlsohn A, Braun H, Großhauser M, Lamps A, Mosler S, Nieß A, Schäbethal K, Schek A, Virmani K, Ziegenhagen R, He_x0002_seker H: Proteins in sports nutrition. Position of the working group sports nutrition of the German Nutrition Society (DGE). Ernah_x0002_rung's review 2020; 67(7):132-9. The German version of this article is available online: DOI: 10.4455/eu.2020.039 Source
- Friedman AN. High-protein diets: potential effects on the kidney in renal health and disease. Am J Kidney Dis. 2004 Dec;44(6):950-62. doi: 10.1053/j.ajkd.2004.08.020. PMID: 15558517. Source
- Bilancio G, Cavallo P, Ciacci C, Cirillo M. Dietary Protein, Kidney Function and Mortality: Review of the Evidence from Epidemiological Studies. nutrients. 2019;11(1):196. Published 2019 Jan 18. doi:10.3390/nu11010196 Source
- Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, Willett WC, Longo VD, Chan AT, Giovannucci EL. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Oct 1;176(10):1453-1463. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182. Erratum in: JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Nov 1;176(11):1728. PMID: 27479196; PMCID: PMC5048552. Source
- Huang J, Liao LM, Weinstein SJ, Sinha R, Graubard BI, Albanes D. Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Sep 1;180(9):1173-1184. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2790. PMID: 32658243; PMCID: PMC7358979. Source
- Blom WA, Lluch A, Stafleu A, Vinoy S, Holst JJ, Schaafsma G, Hendriks HF. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):211-20. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/83.2.211. PMID: 16469977. Source
- Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 4, 8 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-4-8 Source
- Res PT, Groen B, Pennings B, Beelen M, Wallis GA, Gijsen AP, Send JM, VAN Loon LJ. Protein ingestion before sleep improves post-exercise overnight recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Aug;44(8):1560-9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31824cc363. PMID: 22330017. Source
- Halton TL, Hu FB. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Oct;23(5):373-85. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2004.10719381. PMID: 15466943. Source
- Campos-Nonato I, Hernandez L, Barquera S. Effect of a high-protein diet versus standard-protein diet on weight loss and biomarkers of metabolic syndrome: A randomized clinical trial. Top facts. 2017;10(3):238-251. doi:10.1159/000471485 source