The role of protein in a healthy diet

A nutritionally complete diet is important for the optimal functioning of the body. If the body is able to function well on its preferred nutrients, the body will be able to maintain health and protection against disease.

Protein is one of three macronutrients, together with carbohydrate and fat. Protein therefore has an important role to play in the body and must be included as part of a healthy diet. Neither too little nor too much protein in the diet is healthy.

Protein is the nutrient we require for growth, development, muscle synthesis and tissue repair. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy products and legumes are all good sources of protein. This food should be consumed regularly to achieve and adequate daily protein intake. An insufficient protein intake will lead to poor development, low muscle tone, iron deficiency, weakness and fatigue.

During digestion, protein is broken down into building blocks called amino acids which are absorbed into the blood and reorganised to build our human protein for muscle or tissue growth and repair. It is not however just as simple as that. Every food type has a different benefit to the body and within each food type; there are further differences that require consideration when planning meals.  Protein containing foods bring with them a host of other nutrients such as iron, calcium, sodium, cholesterol and saturated fats or added ingredients such as preservatives and sugar.

Choosing lean, minimally processed protein foods is therefore very important. Cooking methods of protein based foods is also a factor to be considered when meal planning.  Frying meat, chicken or fish will add further fat to the meal while the addition of sauces may alter the total health benefits of the meal with the contribution of added sugar and salt.

Use the table below to make healthy choices for the protein element of meals and snacks.

  More Less
Meat ·      Buy lean cuts or trim the fat off before cooking

·      Buy extra lean mince for bolognaise, meat balls or burger patties

·      Choose cold meats sliced off a roast piece of meat

·      Experiment with ostrich meat

·      Use lemon juice, yoghurt, buttermilk or tomato to marinate meat or chicken

·      Limit red meat to 3 – 4 meals per week, choosing chicken, pork or fish for most meals

·      Choose non-marinated meat or chicken

·      Limit highly processed sandwich meats and sausages

·      Limit smoked meats to occasional intake


Chicken ·      Buy skinless chicken or remove the skin before cooking ·      Avoid fried chicken fast food outlets
Seafood ·    Eat fresh, frozen or tinned fish often

·   Add lemon juice for improved absorption of iron.

·      Opt for grilled fish rather than fried

·      Limit intake of shellfish

·      Limit use of garlic butter sauce

Eggs ·      Eat boiled, scrambled or poached eggs as meat substitutes often ·      Avoid eggs fried in oil or butter
Dairy ·      Use unsweetened dairy daily

·      Add fruit to plain yoghurt

·      Cottage cheese is also a good source of calcium

·      Limit flavoured dairy with added sugar

·      Avoid cheese slices

Legumes ·      Eat lentils, chickpeas, dried beans, canned beans at least 3 times a week ·      Rinse canned beans, chickpeas and lentils
Nuts ·      Raw nuts

·      Nut butters

·      Limit roasted and salted nuts

·      Portion size of nuts = closed handful per day or 1 tablespoon nut butter


While food sources of protein should be included at most meals and snacks to spread out the daily intake for maximum absorption, the portion size of protein eaten at main meals should be limited to individual palm size and thickness. Protein in snacks should mostly come from dairy, nuts and nut butters. Adding peanut butter to apple wedges is a good example of a healthy snack with all three macronutrients, carbohydrate, protein and fat. Boiled eggs and small portions of lean biltong can be used for snacks following intense physical activity.

In summary, there are three factors to consider when shopping for and prepping protein for meals.

  1. Choice of protein source
  2. Cooking method
  3. Portion size

When included wisely, protein adds additional value in terms of micronutrients such as iron, zinc, B vitamins and calcium.


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