• Dr Emma Derbyshire

The Protein Shift: Five Points for Consideration.

Of late there appears to be an inherent shift in peoples eating patterns – with sources of protein seemingly being at the forefront. The trend towards veganism and plant-based diets appears to be gaining momentum with no signs of subsiding.

In Stockholm, EAT-Lancet presented the Planetary Health Plate – half of which should be filled with vegetables and fruits (note: starchy vegetables, like potatoes, are limited), while the other half should comprise of mainly whole-grains, plant-based proteins, unsaturated oils and modest amounts of animal-sourced protein.

However, before we speed ahead with these advancements a number of other underpinning factors should be taken into consideration.

1. Protein Recommendations are dated.  Most organizations have based protein recommendations on nitrogen studies, which were conducted several decades ago – typically around the 1970s. Novel isotope and amino acid oxidations studies now indicate that protein intakes guidelines could actually be higher in some populations.

2. Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDG) vary widely. A recent publication in Advances in Nutrition evaluating 90 FBDG globally revealed that 74% included messages about ‘protein foods’. Of these 53% countries mentioned meat, poultry (29%), fish (58%), eggs (31%), legumes (41%), dairy (9%), nuts/seeds (8%), Kenya (insects).

Given that many organisations are now compiling FBDG with a sustainability element consistency will be important. This could encompass plant-based proteins, alternative proteins and some animal proteins. Diversity is important and the categorization of protein groups needs to be carefully thought out so some sources are not overlooked.

3. The definition of ‘plant-based’ needs to be formally and consistently defined.  The term ‘plant-based’ is being widely used yet has not yet been formally defined. Presently, this varies widely between organizations and scientific studies alike. Uniformity is needed given the rapid advancement of this sector and so that science is not misrepresented.

4. Protein quality has been redefined.  Another new paper also published in Advances in Nutrition puts the case forward that the definition of ‘protein quality’ is in need of a modern update. Previously this definition has been based solely on an individual foods amino acid profile.

The new pool for though is that other aspects should also be layered on top of this to give a larger picture of quality. Other quality markers include the proteins effects on health and the environment. New models have been compiled and applied to a range of foods with nuts and poultry coming out particularly well using such an approach.

5. Evidence on the value of ‘protein distribution’ is emerging.  It seems that it’s not just the ‘amount’ of protein that we eat that could affect our health but also ‘when’ we eat this. A growing body of research suggests that further emphasis should be given to protein distribution i.e. promoting an even and balanced pattern of protein intake across the day as new evidence links this to optimal muscle protein synthesis.

Dr Emma Derbyshire has recently co-authored a White Paper report entitled Protein Guidelines: Why The Time is Right for an Update. If you would like to receive a copy please e-mail: emma@nutritional-insight.co.uk


Herforth A et al. (2019) A Global Review of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines. Adv Nutr [Epub ahead of print]

Katz DL et al. (2019) Perspective: The Public Health Case for Modernizing the Definition of Protein Quality. Adv Nutr 2019.

This work was supported by Marlow Foods.  The content of the insight has been written independently.