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What is protein?

Protein is a macronutrient.


We need macronutrients (sometimes called ‘macros’) as they provide us with energy. Other macronutrients include fats and carbohydrates


There are thousands of different proteins in the body that have a huge variety of roles, from supporting our immune function to keeping our muscles and bones healthy throughout life.


Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. When we digest protein from foods or drinks, it is broken down into amino acids. The body then builds all the different proteins it needs from these amino acids.


In the UK, on average, we are eating more than enough protein so we don’t need extra from supplements or products with added protein. But it is important to get protein from a range of different foods including beans, lentils, chickpeas that are also naturally low in fat and high in fibre.


Helena Gibson-Moore, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

What are the different types of protein?

In the UK government’s healthy eating model the Eatwell Guide, many foods that provide protein are listed in the food group called ‘Beans, pulses, eggs, fish, meat and other proteins’. Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, are also good sources of protein.

Plant-based sources of protein

Healthy eating guidance in the UK advises us to include more beans, lentils and peas in our diets. There are also many benefits to the environment if we also include more plant-based protein foods in our diets.

Pulses (beans, lentils and peas)

Pulses such as kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas and lentils all provide a plant-based source of protein.


It’s recommended that we eat more of these as they are a cheap, low-fat source of protein, fibre and vitamins.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds including peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds as well as nut butters and seed pastes like tahini all provide protein as well as vitamins and minerals.


Nuts are also a source of fibre and rich in unsaturated fats. .

Other plant-based protein sources

A range of other plant-based protein sources are available from foods made from soya (such as soya mince or tofu), a range of foods made of mycoprotein (Quorn) and alternative proteins which are newly available such as pea protein

Animal sources of protein

Many animal foods provide protein and can provide important vitamins and minerals in the diet

Fish and shellfish

It’s recommended we have two portions of fish each week, one of which should be an oily fish. However, on average in the UK, we are not eating enough fish. Fresh, canned and frozen fish are all healthy choices.


When cooking, we recommend you steam, bake or grill your fish rather than deep fry. 

Meat and poultry

Meat and poultry are good sources of protein as well as different vitamins and minerals.


Poultry like chicken provides B vitamins, phosphorus and selenium and can be low in fat if you choose chicken breast without skin.

Dairy foods

Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese provide protein as well as calcium, B vitamins, and iodine. 


It’s recommended we choose reduced fat versions of milk, cheese and yogurt as dairy foods contain saturated fat – which is the type we should eat less of.


Eggs are a good source of protein and also provide omega 3 fats, vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D and selenium. 

Key facts about protein

  1. Protein is a macronutrient (‘macros’).
  2. We need protein for energy and to help the body grow and repair itself.
  3. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When we digest proteins, they are broken down to amino acids, which the body uses to make new proteins. 
  4. In the UK, on average, we are eating enough protein in our diets. 
  5. It is a good idea to get protein from a variety of foods and the government recommends we eat more pulses that are naturally low in fat and high in fibre.

Protein FAQs

Research has found that switching the average diet in the UK to the eating pattern recommended in the government’s Eatwell Guide, which is more plant based, our health would improve significantly and we would reduce the environmental footprint of our diet.


We don’t need to cut out meat or other animal foods completely but instead we should look at ways we could eat a wider variety of foods that provide protein. For many of us, eating more beans, lentils, nuts and other plant-based proteins would be a healthy way to get some of the protein we need. 


If you choose to be vegetarian or vegan, you need to make sure you are getting plenty of plant-based protein foods. Most vegetarians get enough protein in their diets, but it’s important to include a variety of foods to provide protein as well as other vitamins and minerals.


Although animal protein is considered ‘better quality’ than protein from plant sources (meaning it has a complete set of all the amino acids in adequate amounts for the proteins the body needs), provided we eat a varied diet we can get all the protein and amino acids we need to be healthy from plant-based sources.

As most of us are eating more than enough protein already, we do not need to add protein supplements or special products with added protein into our diets. If you are doing an intensive exercise programme, then your protein needs may be higher, but you can still get enough protein from foods. 


Evidence shows that, if you are training at a high level (such as a professional athlete) then having protein shortly after training can help you repair and rebuild muscle.

For people doing intensive training with a busy schedule, having protein supplements, drinks or bars may be a convenient way to meet their protein needs, although it is better to try and do this from food where possible as protein-rich food (nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products (yogurt, milk, cheese), legumes (beans, lentils), fish, poultry, eggs, and lean meat) can also provide you with other important nutrients in your diet.

When it comes to weight loss, high-protein diets are not necessarily better than other types of diets intended for weight loss, for example low fat or intermittent fasting. However, they can be effective for some people – it depends what works best for you. 

(Note that those diets which include a lot of red and processed meat are not advised because of the link with these foods and bowel cancer).

Last reviewed October 2023. Next review due October 2026.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.