It’s the nutritional superstar at the heart of every hot diet from Dukan to OMG to Lean & Clean. Not only is it great for weight loss, making you feel more satisfied after eating, it also helps build and repair muscles so is fantastic as pre and post work out fuel. What is it? Protein.

It used to be men who were obsessed with protein. Steaks, roasts and burgers are traditional alpha male fare. Women, on the other hand, were encouraged to pick at a salad. However, science is now suggesting that all of us can benefit from increasing lean protein intake.

First are the weight maintenance benefits. Protein takes longer to leave the stomach and longer to metabolise. No wonder then that a recent study from Cambridge University showed that those who increased the proportion of protein in one meal from 10 – 15% went on to eat 260 fewer calories over the rest of the day.

But protein is more than a diet food. It is essential for making bones, cartilage, enzymes and hormones. The last in that list is key for women whose delicate and naturally fluctuating hormone balance controls everything from fertility to mood. Bad PMS, low grade depression, can’t get pregnant? Look at your protein intake.

Protein can also protect us from disease. A US Study from John Hopkins University found that a diet that was ¼ protein reduced blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, all risk factors for heart disease. Other research has linked higher protein intakes to reduced incidence of diabetes and osteoperosis

But, hang on a sec, isn’t too much meat bad for us? What about other protein foods such as milk and cheese, surely they’re loaded with artery clogging saturated fat? Well, yes, they are. Even without the fat content, mega dosing on protein is not necessarily healthy, putting pressure on the kidneys for example. The truth is, an active woman needs between 70 and 140g of protein a day An average serving of chicken (100g) contains about 25g of pure protein, so that’s three servings or equivalent, p/day.

It is also important to keep a balance of proteins, with fish, eggs and vegetarian sources of protein to balance meat intake and to supplement this with plenty of healthy, fibre-rich carbs. A low fibre intake, as can happen on a high protein diet, may increase your risk of some cancers.

So what is protein? Protein is made out of building blocks called amino acids (AAs). There are 20 of these derived from protein. These are divided into so-called ‘essential’ AAs, which we cannot make in our bodies and we must eat in our food, and non-essential, which we can synthesise from other AAs. Foods that offer a full range of essential AAs are called ‘complete proteins’ and are largely animal based – meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Vegetarian proteins – tofu, tempeh, quorn etc. – are incomplete.

If you want to up the boffin level further, you can also talk about ‘biological value’ (BV) which is a measure of how easily absorbed and used in the body different proteins are. Again, animal sources tend to score well, with egg whites being at the top of the list, hence, why body builders like them so much.

Even so, what AA and BV scores are really only half the picture. To choose the best protein, you need to consider other factors like calorie and mineral content, especially iron (key for women), and the balance of sat fats to essential fats. With all that in mind, here’s our guide to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ proteins.


Because of its high protein and omega 3 fat content, salmon is a great choice. Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory so good for post-exercise joint and muscle recovery.

Verdict: Good protein

Best choice: Wild salmon e.g. frozen Alaskan salmon fillets. Why? You can have too much of a good thing, even ‘good’ fats. Wild salmon is leaner.

2nd choice: Farmed salmon. Lots of Omega 3s, but there may be concerns about antiobiotic residues and environmental impact.

3rd choice: Tinned wild salmon. Why? Some of the good fats may be destroyed by processing and there are worries about the lining of cans possibly ‘leaking’ chemicals into the fish . However, tinned salmon usually Includes the bones which supply calcium, important for a strong skeleton for exercise and preventing osteoporosis.


Red meat delivers complete protein with a high BV and is also a good source of iron, which is the most common mineral deficiency among women. However, it also contains unhealthy saturated fats.

Verdict: Good and bad protein.

Best choice: Grass fed
Grass fed is usually labelled ‘organic’. This means its been fed on pasture (grass) which makes the meat leaner with a higher Omega 3 content.

2nd choice: grain fed.
Pretty much all non-organic meat comes from cattle fed grain (corn, maize, soy). The resulting meat has a higher sat fat content and may contain residues of antibiotics and artificial growth-promoting hormones added to the grain.


Both chicken and turkey are great for upping your lean protein intake. Remove the skin and stick to the breast for the lowest fat.

Verdict: Good protein.

Best choice: Turkey
Contains tryptophan, an amino acid we use to make happy hormone serotonin so could lift mood.

2nd choice: Chicken
Still good, but less tryptophan.


It used to be thought that eating a lot of eggs could raise your cholesterol. Now it is known that it is how you process cholesterol in your body that matters more than the amount you eat. So, there is no official ceiling on how many you can eat a week. This is good because eggs are a good source of affordable protein.

Verdict: Good protein.

Best choice: Organic.
All animals store toxins from antiobiotics and artificial hormones, in fat. So, when deciding whether to go organic, the simple answer is to do so if the food you’re buying contains fat as does egg yolk.

2nd choice: barn eggs.
Welfare concerns.


Dairy products are a great source of calcium, which is important for keeping the skeleton strong so is beneficial if you do a lot of sport. However, there is controversy about whether to go full or reduced fat.

Full fat cheese is chock full of sat fats, although recent research has indicated that it may not cause weight gain as it seems to lead to more excretion of fat by the body. Also, certain useful fat soluble vitamins (A, E, K) are removed when you take the fat out of a product.
The current official advice is to go low fat.

Verdict: Good protein.

Best choice: Reduced fat cottage cheese.
Not only is it high in protein and low in sat fats, it is a good source of bone-building duo calcium and phosphorous.

Worst choice: Camambert
45% fat! You do the maths.


Vegetarian proteins have the advantage of being low in sat fat. The downside is they tend not to deliver as powerful a protein punch.

Verdict: Good protein.
Best choice: Tofu.
Tofu is made from fermented soy. The fermentation is important because it is this that seems to confer the health-promoting benefits of soy in, for example, reducing the incidence of female cancers. Virtually fat free.

2nd choice: Quorn.
Quorn is a convenient alternative to meat, low in fat and calories. However, it is made from mushrooms which may trigger symptoms in those suffering from candida.