Most of the information we hear about protein is related to the Atkins or low carbohydrate diets. However, many individuals are not aware of the health benefits of eating the right amount and quality of protein.
In this article, I will provide you with important information about protein. I won’t be discussing high protein diets or controversies among supporters of the low carbohydrate vs low fat diet. To remain healthy, we need to keep a balance within our body, mind and soul. Our bodies require the supply of the right amount of nutrients in our food. To achieve a healthy body, we need to eat a well-balanced diet that includes combination of carbohydrates, protein and fats. These three components are known as “macronutrients,” meaning that our body needs large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals known as “micronutrients” are also very important components but required in a lesser amount.
Protein is the building block of every cell, tissue and organ in the body. The most important functions of protein are:
• Giving structure to the skin, bones, hair, and nails
• Helping build cells and repair tissues
• Synthesis of hormones, neurotransmitters , enzymes and blood
• Carrying important substances through the blood to cells and receptors sites
• Participating in vital chemical reactions in the body
• Helping the immune system
So, what is protein?
Proteins are complex molecules made from small units named amino acids. There are a total of 20 amino-acids which are attached to each other. Eleven of these are manufactured by our bodies, however the other nine, called “essential amino acids, “ must be obtained directly from our food because the body is unable to make them.
When we eat, the body breaks down the protein in food to make the amino acids that it needs. Our bodies are constantly consuming and replacing amino acids. We need a combination of different types of protein to provide the body with all the twenty amino acids required for optimal functioning.
Unlike carbohydrates and fat, our bodies do not store protein. During acute illness or food deprivation, the body will start breaking down muscles in order to produce the amino acids it needs.
The amount of daily protein recommended will depend on the gender, age, level of physical activity and total body weight of each individual. Men usually need more protein than women. The USDA recommends an average of 56 grams of protein a day for men and 46 grams for women (this is about 10-35% of each individual’s total daily calories). A higher amount will be necessary for children and adolescents who are still developing and athletes. Certain individuals with renal disease and gout are required to consume a lower amount of protein.
There are different types of protein
Complete or high quality proteins: they have twenty amino acids. Examples: eggs, meat, poultry and cheese.
Incomplete proteins: they are low in one or more essential amino acids, such as beans and tofu.
Foods rich in protein
• Meats, poultry, and fish (select lean meats)
• Milk and dairy products (low-fat)
• Legumes (dry beans and peas)
• Nuts and seeds
Vegetarians may select plant-based sources of protein which include beans and peas, soy products, nuts and seeds. As we discussed previously, complete or high quality proteins are mostly found in animal products.
You can also find supplements rich in low-fat protein such as protein shakes, protein bars and egg white products.
When selecting your protein source, choose lean meats with the least amount of saturated fat. Meats and processed animal products are very high in sodium, fats and additives, and they can be harmful to our health.
The USDA has indicated that most adults in the United States consume the right amount of protein. However, the right type of protein must be selected to provide the health benefits, allowing our bodies to function properly and efficiently.