Proteins, the Building Blocks of Our Body
By Sara j Pluta
Most people have heard of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, the significant macro-nutrients necessary in our diets. But what exactly are these nutrients, what foods are they found in, and why do we need them?
Balance is Key
There are hundreds of diets out there asking us to eat more of this and less of that; eliminate one thing and gorge on another. But really, there is no need to get all caught up in following strict guidelines. Sometimes eliminating an important nutrient can do more harm than good. Eating proportionate amounts of each of these nutrients ensures that our bodies are getting the right amount of everything. And this makes certain we maintain our health.
The focus of this article is the protein. Protein is a critical component of the diet. It was the first substance to be recognized as a vital part of living tissue. The word protein comes from the Greek word proteos meaning primary or taking first place, indicating the importance of this nutrient. Proteins make up 20% of our body weight and perform an array of functions throughout the body, as key components of tissues, enzymes, hormones, DNA, immune cells, and other chemicals.
Proteins are required to produce, maintain, and repair bones, hair, skin, muscles, and other organs. While carbohydrates can be considered fuel, proteins are more like structural building blocks. Every function of the body depends on proteins.
Proteins are not simple structures; in fact they are complex molecules consisting of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur, which form amino acids. These amino acids link together in specific numbers and unique sequences to make each distinctive protein. Consider the amino acids as beads that when put together form a necklace. These beads can be strung together to make thousands of different necklaces. A typical protein contains 200-300 amino acids.
Two Basic Types
There are two types of amino acids, essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids cannot be manufactured by the body, so must be obtained from food. There are nine essential amino acids. There are 11 nonessential amino acids that are readily made by the body, so are less important to get via a nutrition source. Under certain circumstances however, such as environmental stress, some nonessential amino acids are not produced. Undoubtedly, it is important to consider the quality of protein and food that is consumed in order to guarantee proper nourishment from our food.
Imagine of a pool of amino acids. If any one amino acid is missing from the pool, the body cannot link together a proper structure to form a protein. It is imperative that we are not deficient in any amino acids, otherwise the body will have to break down muscle proteins to obtain the amino acids it needs. Generally it is quite easy to get all of the amino acids through our daily intake of food as long as we eat a variety of vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dairy, meat and animal products (if desired).
Complete proteins consist of all of the essential amino acids, thus filling our pool with the necessary components. These include eggs, poultry, meat, fish, and dairy. Incomplete proteins contain only some of the essential amino acids. These foods are mostly plant foods such as seeds, nuts, vegetables, peas, beans, and grains. So what if an individual is a vegetarian and eats only incomplete plant proteins? Will they not have the right pool of amino acids to create proteins?
Eating an array of foods throughout the day solves this problem. Each meal does not have to include all the essential amino acids but a day’s worth of food intake should. Someone can construct a complete protein by eating beans and rice together, peanut butter on whole grain bread, or a stir-fry of vegetables and tofu.
Some good sources of protein:
- Fish and Seafood are lean, high-quality protein sources that also contain essential omega-3 fatty acids.
- Meat from beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, pork, etc is high in protein. Try to eat leaner cuts of meat and take the skin off of poultry.
- Eggs are an excellent source of complete protein that is inexpensive and readily available. Eggs also provide choline for cell functioning and other vitamins like A, D, and E.
- Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are plentiful sources of protein in addition to calcium and other essential vitamins. Greek yogurt is particularly high in protein. Cottage cheese is also low in fat and high in protein.
- Beans like pinto, black, kidney, lentils, split peas, and garbanzos are some of the best sources of proteins for vegetarians. Beans are also loaded with fiber.
- Soybeans are particularly rich in amino acids. Food choices include tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, and other soy products.
- Nuts and seeds such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and sesame seeds are dense nutrient foods. Just be careful not to overdo them as they are also high in calories and fat. A handful a day is usually sufficient.
- Whole grains such as quinoa, amaranth, oats, millet, buckwheat, and cracked wheat tend to be higher in protein than other grains. Combine these with beans or nuts and seeds for a complete protein profile.
There are many creative ways to add protein into any diet. Some surprising food sources are the grain quinoa, hemp seeds and hemp protein, Greek yogurt, sprouted nuts and seeds, sea vegetables like spirulina and chlorella, protein powders made from whey, egg whites, soy, hemp, pea, and rice, and creative uses of soy. Even meat eaters can enjoy a balance of plant and animal proteins. Plant proteins often offer other nutrients like fiber, essential fats, and complex carbohydrates that animal proteins do not.
Dietary guidelines for protein intake vary depending on the person and their lifestyle, their phase of life, and their health. There are various schools of thought on this. On average it is recommended that 10-35% of daily calories come from protein. Another simple equation is to divide your body weight by 2 and that is how many grams of protein you might consume. The reality is, if we eat a balanced diet, we will most likely get all the protein we require. The simple way of measuring if we are getting enough protein is to ask: “Do we look healthy, do we feel good, is our weight optimal, do we have good muscle tone, do our hair and nails grow fast, do our wounds heal well, do we recover from illness quickly, do we generally feel healthy?”
Times when more protein may be necessary are; during illness and recuperation, pregnancy and breast-feeding, for infants and growing children, and extreme athletes that are building muscle or may be recovering from injury. However, with an increase in caloric consumption, so too is the additional protein quota generally reached.
Proteins are the building blocks of life and vitally important to everyone’s dietary regime. The good news is proteins come in a variety of delicious foods and so the nutritional benefits can be enjoyed at every meal.
Sara J. Pluta
A keen interest in food and nutrition led Sara to pursue a culinary degree in health-supportive cuisine and then go on to study nutrition extensively, as she earned a BS, MS, and completed coursework for her doctorate in Holistic Nutrition. Sara has been in the Natural Products Industry for over 15 years where she enjoys empowering people through education and enthusiasm. Sara is a passionate speaker and a natural teacher who blends modern science, ancient wisdom, and human interest to connect with her audience.