Why Protein is the Most Important Nutrient Your Body Needs Daily
Protein is, of course, a vital component of a healthy diet. Most of us have known this since we were kids – probably from being told that protein would make us “big and strong”. And, while there’s some debate as to who actually created the word “protein”(it first appeared in the scientific literature in 1838), there’s no disagreement that it was derived from the Greek word “protos”- meaning “first rank or position”- in recognition of how important protein is.
But first, let’s understand – what are proteins?
Proteins are made up of 22 ‘building blocks’ called amino acids, nine of which are essential because our body cannot make them – they have to come from our diet. These 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. But, if one or more of the essential amino acids is missing, then the protein is considered incomplete. This could however pose a problem for vegetarians because, with the exception of soy protein, most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acids, so they’re considered incomplete.
Why do we need protein?
Simply put, proteins are essential to life. Protein is an important component of your skin, hair, fingernails, bones, blood and cartilage – in fact, it literally holds us together. Your body also uses it to produce important body proteins like enzymes and hormones. Enzymes speed up certain chemical processes – like digestive enzymes that help break down our food and release energy into your system. Hormones act as ‘cellular messengers’ and help to coordinate all kinds of activities in the body – like insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar in our body. Our immune system needs protein to make antibodies – specialized proteins that help the body defend against foreign invaders. And, the body also makes transport proteins that move things around – like haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all the cells of our body, or specialized proteins that carry vitamins and minerals to the cells that need them.
Where do we get protein from?
Meats, fish, poultry, eggs and milk products are good sources of complete protein and are also sources of certain minerals like iron and zinc. On the other hand, plant proteins offer up a wide array of vitamins and minerals, along with fiber and antioxidants, which you won’t find in animal foods. Plant sources are also naturally cholesterol-free, and usually low in fat. You should aim for a balance of both plant and animal proteins in your diet (unless you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet) to obtain the benefits of both.
Pure vegetarians might find it difficult to get complete protein from vegan sources. Don’t be disheartened. Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy way to work that around. You can combine plant sources in such a way to provide the complete set of essential building blocks that the body needs. The essential amino acid that is lacking in beans, peas and lentils, for example, is abundant in grains and, conveniently, what the grains lack, the beans can provide. So, when you pair black beans with rice, you can provide your body with all the essential amino acids that it needs. Soy, quinoa, peas, chickpeas, spinach are some other plant proteins you could load up on.
Soy Protein: An efficient protein choice
You probably know you need to eat protein to maintain a balanced diet, but there are many different types of protein from which to choose. While animal meats, dairy products, nuts and seeds are some of the more popular types of protein – soy protein, sourced from soybeans, is another protein option that adds efficiency to your nutrition plan.
As a complete plant protein, it provides the full range of essential amino acids. Like other proteins, it helps preserve lean muscle mass and promotes new muscle development and is the most digestible of all proteins. Because soy is a plant, it does not contain saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal protein. By keeping hunger at bay, soy protein can be a useful part of a weight-management program. It also supports muscle development and can help promote increased strength during resistance training.
How much protein do you need?
There are established guidelines for how much protein the average man or woman should eat every day, and these recommendations are set at levels to meet the very basic needs of most people. But, body sizes and body composition can vary a lot from person to person. Since protein helps to support lean body mass, it stands to reason that protein needs are going to differ between, for example, a 90-kg male body builder and a 70-kg male office worker who doesn’t get much exercise. For this reason, I would suggest that you take a more personalized approach to protein – the recommended daily amount of protein is determined by the amount of lean body mass in the body. I advise body composition testing to determine the amount of lean mass you have, and recommend that you eat about 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kg of lean body mass each day. In general, you should eat about 30% of your calories from protein. This amount will provide your body with the building blocks necessary to help you build and maintain lean body mass and to help you satisfy your hunger.
So, having understood what is protein, why do we need it, from where do we get it and how much our body needs, it will be good to know what happens to the protein consumed?
As protein foods pass through the digestive tract, they’re ultimately broken back down into their individual amino acids, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. Your body can then use these building blocks to produce some 50,000 different body proteins – each of which has a specific structure (and function) based upon its arrangement of amino acids.
As long as your body has all the necessary “raw materials” in the form of the amino acid building blocks, it can manufacture these important body proteins – from the enzymes that speed up chemical reactions in the body, to hormones that act as chemical messengers. Here are some tips to keep-in handy about this wonder nutrient –
• People who eat a high-protein breakfast consume about 250 calories less per day than those who have a high-carbohydrate breakfast.
• For a high protein trail mix that will keep you going, mix some roasted soy nuts in with your usual dried fruits, chips and nuts.
• Two more reasons to get plenty of protein – both hair and nails, made from the protein called keratin, need it in order to grow healthy and strong.
Once the amino acids enter your bloodstream, there’s no way to tell whether they were derived from a bowl of lentils or a steak; they all end up as an amino acid “pool” in your body’s tissues and fluids – a pool that can be tapped into as and when needed. To ensure a steady supply of amino acids, though, it’s important to consume adequate protein every day.