I’m Jessica Giljam-Brown, owner of Wellness By Jessica and qualified nutritionist and medical herbalist. I am passionate about teaching women to take control of their health by understanding how their body works. A big part of my work is based on helping women resolve hormonal issues, thrive in pregnancy, and recover well in the postpartum months.
Mitchells Nutrition has got me onboard to speak about the importance of protein for women's health...
When it comes to working with women’s health, how does protein fit into their whole health picture?
Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, the production of enzymes to run reactions in the body, supporting immune function and helping transport oxygen and nutrients around the body. It is needed by every aspect of the body for proper health, so it is a nutrient I look closely at when analysing a patient's diet. Before I look at altering specific micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) I first look at the macronutrient intake, specifically the ratio between protein, fat and carbohydrate intake. It is often the ratio of these macronutrients in a diet that will drive a patient's energy, hormonal function and mood.
The women’s menstrual cycle is said to be like a monthly ‘health report’, why is protein important for the menstrual cycle and hormones?
Yes! We often speak about a woman’s period being a good indicator of her general health. Ideally, I am looking for a bleed that starts about 26-35 days after her last bleed, a bleed that lasts 3-7 days, with minimal pain, cramping or PMS side effects. Anything outside of that ideal can indicate that something isn’t right with their health.
Protein is needed to make the sex hormones and needed to trigger ovulation, the main event of the menstrual cycle and helps curb hunger in the luteal phase. The luteal phase is the second half of the menstrual cycle from after ovulation until the bleed starts, it is during this time that a female's metabolic rate will increase. This means that more food is needed to fuel the body, studies show that 100-300 more calories are needed. It's no wonder you have food cravings during this time, you’re hungry!
Increasing your protein intake in the luteal phase is the best way to increase your calories. Protein not only provides your energy, but it is also very filling and satiating without wreaking havoc on your blood sugar. Adding extra protein during this phase of your cycle is as simple as adding an extra scoop of protein to your smoothie, adding some collagen into your coffee or mixed into yoghurt, or increasing your portion of eggs or meat at main meals.
What role does protein play in preconception, pregnancy & breastfeeding?
During preconception the goal is to support healthy and regular ovulation and good egg quality - this can be supported through proper protein intake, as without enough protein ovulation can be impaired.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, protein is a key nutrient for the growth of the foetus and supporting placenta, and then after birth protein is needed for repair of the body post-birth and to make breastmilk. Low protein diets during pregnancy are associated with intrauterine growth restriction, and during breastfeeding, animal studies show us that low protein intake can reduce breast tissue formation and milk production.
Protein needs increase during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and it can be a challenge to meet requirements with main meals alone, especially if you are feeling nauseous in early pregnancy, or bloated and experiencing reflux in late pregnancy. Adding protein powder into drinks, smoothies and baking is a really easy way to increase the protein intake of foods that would be typically low-protein snacks. During pregnancy and postpartum, a protein-rich bliss ball or smoothie can be a lifesaver!
It’s important to note that recent studies show that protein needs dramatically increase in pregnancy. Typical protein intake for women is 1g/.kg of body weight per day, however in the first half of pregnancy protein intake should be at 1.22g/kg of body weight and for 20 weeks should be 1.5g/kg of body weight daily.
As women age, does the importance of protein change?
Yes, protein needs changes as you age, go through a pregnancy, during breastfeeding and in times of healing.
As we age we tend to lose muscle mass due to reduced activity, poor nutrition and reduced growth and sex hormones. Various diseases will exacerbate muscle mass reduction too. Higher protein intake after the age of 65 has been shown to slow down age related muscle mass loss and allows women better motor function as they age.
Increasing protein intake to at least 1.2g/kg of body weight per day, or even up to 2g/kg of body weight for active women is advised. Maintaining or even building muscle mass through exercise is the best way to prevent age-related muscle mass loss.
Powdered protein supplements are a great way to include more protein in the diet if low appetite or chewing has become an issue.
Are there any specific symptoms and/or conditions that you have seen prioritising protein intake to be particularly beneficial for?
Protein has the wonderful ability to help stabilise the effects that carbohydrates can have on blood sugar levels and consequently insulin levels. When carbohydrates are eaten in isolation, there is typically a big spike of sugar in the blood and then insulin. Insulin can increase the production of testosterone - as is the case with conditions like PCOS.
When carbohydrates are eaten with some protein or fat, the absorption of carbohydrates into the blood steam is much slower and the production of insulin is far less dramatic. Not only do higher protein intakes protect against quick spikes in blood sugar, but also the quick drop of blood sugar that can happen in carb-only meals. It is the quick drop in blood sugar that leaves you hungry, tired and cranky. I find that reducing the number of times a patient's blood sugar quickly drops over the day is very helpful in reducing anxiety.
When it comes to your clinical work with women, is it common to be deficient in protein? And what tips and tricks do you have for optimising intake?
I rarely come across a true protein deficiency in my patients who are eating at least two meals a day. There is a certain amount of protein needed for survival, and then an amount of protein that is needed to thrive. I don’t often see women eating enough to thrive and support great hormonal health, blood sugar and mood.
The typical reasons for not eating enough protein to feel their best are; a lack of education, being too busy to plan meals, or eating on the run. Generally, easy and quick meals that we grab on the go are higher in carbohydrates but lower in protein.
These are the key habits I try to teach:
1. Sit down for three proper meals a day
2. Plan your meals and shopping ahead of time so you are not caught out
3. Keep easy proteins on hand at all times - protein powder, tinned fish, eggs, tinned beans, cheese etc
4. Always combine your carbohydrate-based foods with a protein-based food
What are your favourite protein foods and or supplements that you recommend for women to incorporate into their diet?
I love collagen and bone broth powders because they pack a heap of protein per serving and don’t cause any bloat or stomach upset, unlike whey or plant-based proteins. I also find they incorporate into recipes far better than some of the other chalky protein powder options on the market.
Mitchells Bone Broth Powder - add to veggie soups or use a snack in the afternoon. I like to add seaweed, spinach, cooked quinoa and some miso paste to the bone broth powder as a mini afternoon cup-of-soup snack.
Mitchells Salted Caramel Protein Powder - mix into greek yoghurt with berries for a filling breakfast or snack, or add to your favourite bliss ball recipe.
Mitchells Collagen Powder - I like to mix neutral flavoured collagen into my coffee every day as another little way to bump up the protein content of my breakfast.
You can learn more from Jessica and follow her work over at @wellnessbyjessica
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