What is protein?
Protein is a word that is frequently used on television, in advertising and on packaging and so most people are familiar with it. However, you might be surprised at just how few people actually know what protein is, how it is used by the body and how to identify quality protein foods.
If you are thinking, “why do I need to know more about protein”, the answer in a nut-shell is because it is an essential macro-nutrient – one of three primary nutritional compounds consumed by humans in the largest quantities and which provide bulk energy.
The two other macro-nutrients are fat and carbohydrates.
Protein is required by our bodies for a wide range of critical functions. In other words, we cannot live without it.
What are proteins – the technical bit
Proteins are a component of each and every cell, tissue and organ in our bodies and they are constantly being broken down and replaced.
The protein that we take in through the food that we eat is basically the same as the protein in our bodies, except that it is structured differently. Once eaten, food protein is broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and later used to replenish our bodies’ own protein stores.
There are 22 different amino acids required by the body in order to function properly and there are over 10,000 different kinds of protein in the body.
Functions of protein
Protein is used to:
build and repair muscles and ligaments (whether as part of normal growth or following exercise or injury)
provide the body with energy
balance blood sugar levels
grow skin, hair, nails and bones
produce haemoglobin in blood
make antibodies and support the immune system
transfer messages between neurotransmitters in the brain
make hormones, such as insulin and metabolism-regulators
As you can see, protein has an incredibly wide application in the body and can be used for anything from providing a physical structure to assisting in a biological process. This is why it is essential to incorporate adequate levels of high quality, lean, protein-rich foods into your daily diet.
A high-protein diet
There are lots of differing opinions about the benefits or otherwise of high-protein diets.
Going a step further, opinions will again diverge according to whether you are talking about plant-based protein or animal protein because (for example) plant proteins are lower in fat, calories and cholesterol, yet usually higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients.
However, the fact remains that protein is an essential component of every person’s diet for the various reasons set out above. The key is to ensure that you are receiving enough protein on a daily basis and that it is natural, lean, balanced and complete (i.e. contains all of the essential amino acids that cannot be manufactured by your body).
While most people associate protein with meat and other animal products, these are not the only high-protein foods.
You might be surprised to learn that there is a significant amount of protein in fresh leafy greens and even in fruit – this is often referred to as plant-based protein – you just have to choose your fruit, vegetables and other whole foods carefully.
Wheatgrass, hemp and quinoa, for example, are all examples of so-called “first class” proteins from plant sources, which contain all the essential amino acids. People following the Living Foods programme also use fermented seed and nut sauces and pates, seed and nut milks (all sprouted), sprouted millet, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds, avocados and green drinks as good protein sources.