Protein – What’s all the Hype?

There are seven broad, needful categories of food to be considered if we are to experience vibrant heath, and not just the absence of disease or injury. Those categories are carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water. In this article, we will take a closer look at proteins.

Few nutrients are as important as protein. Not getting enough protein will affect the health and body composition. How critical they are to our survival can even be seen in its Greek root word Proteios, which means “primary importance.” Proteins are large, highly-complex molecules that are present in all living organisms. They play many critical roles in the body. They

  • are essential for the growth, maintenance, and repair of body cells and tissues;
  • are the building blocks of our organs, muscles, skin, hair, and nails;
  • help boost the immune system so that our bodies can resist and fight off infections;
  • play a key role in the balance of fluid in the body;
  • provide energy for the body to function;
  • are critical in chemical reactions in the body (enzymes, some critical in digestion; hormones, such as insulin, needed to regulate glucose, and hemoglobin which carries oxygen to every cell in the body are proteins); and
  • work within the body to transfer reactions from cell to cell.

Proteins are species specific, meaning that proteins differ from species to species. They are also organ specific. For example, proteins of the brain and proteins of the liver will be different even within the same body.

Chemical proteins are large molecules that are basically a chain of amino acids. These proteins differ from one another primarily in the ordering of the amino acids. This ordering determines the activity of the protein. They are basically made up of a hydrogen atom, a carboxyl group (1 carbon atom, 2 oxygen atoms and a hydrogen atom), and an amino group (a nitrogen atom and 2 hydrogen atoms).

There are approximately twenty different amino acids that naturally occur in proteins within our bodies, but there are at least 100 amino acids that occur in nature, mostly plants. Of these, 11 are non-essential in the human diet because our bodies make them, or retrieve them, from the breakdown of other protein. Nine of the 20 amino acids are essential to obtain from our diet, because these we do not manufacture or retrieve. There are also conditional amino acids that our body needs during times of stress and illness.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound (0.8 grams per kilogram) of body weight. This amounts to 54 grams (1.9 oz) per day for a 150-pound sedentary person or 65 grams (2.3 oz) per day for a 180-pound sedentary person. A highly-active person would need to consume 0.54 to 0.9 grams per pound of body weight, a significant increase over a less active person.

This recommended daily intake of protein is likely enough to prevent protein deficiency, but the amount a person needs varies from person to person, depending on the physical activity level, as well as age, sex, overall health, to name a few. Extra protein can also be needed during times of illness and physical repair (such as burns), children during growth spurts, and during pregnancy and lactation.

When dietary protein is in short supply, the body tends to take protein from skeletal muscles for more important body functions. This can result in muscle wasting over time and is specifically worse in the elderly from even moderate protein insufficiency.

So how do we get this critical nutrient into our bodies and have vibrant health? It is easy for the non-vegetarian to not only get enough protein, but to get too much protein from, for example, meat, milk, cheese, and eggs, plus the protein from vegetables and other non-animal sources.

The saying, “You can’t get too much of a good thing” isn’t true. For example, even though protein is a necessary nutrient to have daily, consuming too much of it can lead to brain fog, bloating, and weight gain.

Vegan vegetarians get their protein primarily from nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, and vegetables. Nuts and seeds, including almonds, hazel nuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are good sources of protein. Pinto, black, kidney, or garbanzo beans, split peas, and lentils are good sources of lean protein. High in fiber, they may help lower your cholesterol if you eat them regularly. Tofu, edamame, tempeh, and other products made from soybeans are also good sources of protein. Vegetables, although not high in protein, do supply protein for vegetarians.  Some vegetables with higher amounts of protein are green peas, spinach, artichokes, corn, avocado, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, kale, and potatoes.

Of primary concern for the vegetarian is getting all nine essential amino acids because most plant-based products lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Quinoa, soybeans, edamame, tempeh, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and amaranth contain all nine essential amino acids.

Of all the soybeans produced in the United States, about 95% of these are genetically modified. To avoid these, buy organic soybean products and tofu, or those labeled non-GMO.

It is not necessary to eat a complete protein at every meal, nor even every day, but aim for variety in your diet. One real advantage of vegetarian protein choices is that many of them are high in fiber and make you feel full and may help in weight control and lowering cholesterol if eaten regularly. The higher the fiber content the better for your gut microorganisms, regularity, and may help reduce colon cancer.

This may be more than you wanted to know about protein, but it has clearly demonstrated why protein is critical to life. With adequate protein added to your nutrition plan, you are one step closer to experiencing vibrant health. Bon appétit!

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