Everywhere you go, someone is pushing some kind of high-protein snack, shake or supplement. But what is it about protein that everyone goes crazy about, and is heaps of protein really good for us? Let’s try to break it down in simpler terms for you.
What Is Protein?
Protein is one of the essential macro-nutrients in the human body. Basically, without it, we cannot survive.
It is the building block of our cells and tissues, as well as our enzymes, hormones and the immune system.
Where Do We Get Protein?
The good news is that protein is plentiful in the foods available to us today.
Almost all animal-based foods, including meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk and other dairy products are sources of protein. For plant-based foods, the list includes grains, beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as small amounts that are available in fruits and vegetables.
Protein supplements are also commonly used by many active people, or by those trying to lose weight. Supplements can be animal-based, such as whey protein and egg white protein, or plant-based, such as pea protein or soy protein.
What Are Essential Amino Acids?
There are a few different types of amino acids in proteins. We classify them according to how essential they are to the human body. There are essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids and conditionally essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids are those that the human body cannot create on its own, and must source from food in order to function properly and maintain good health. The essential amino acids are phenylalanine, tryptophan, valine, threonine, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine and histidine.
Non-essential amino acids are those that the body can synthesize by itself from other amino acids. If we don't get enough of them through the diet, the body can still continue to function properly. The non-essential amino acids are alanine, asparagine, glutamic acid, aspartic acid and serine.
Then to make things confusing, some are classified as conditionally essential. These amino acids can be synthesized by the body, but when the body is under significant stress, it may not be able to synthesize enough of them to function optimally. The conditionally essential amino acids are arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, tyrosine and proline.
So, what does this mean for you? If you are a generally healthy person, it means you want to have plenty of the essential amino acids, and not worry about how much you eat of the other two types.
If you do have health conditions that can stress the body, you may want to make sure you are also consuming enough of the conditionally essential amino acids, as well, as you may not produce enough by yourself.
Are All Protein Sources Equal?
Different protein sources have different levels of amino acids. Some contain high levels of the essential amino acids, whereas others only have a few of the essential amino acids.
This is particularly true of plant-based proteins. Unlike animal proteins, most plant-based proteins are 'incomplete' – that is, they don't contain sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids to be used as a sole source of protein in the diet.
This doesn't mean that you're doomed when it comes to protein if you don't eat animal proteins. It just means you need to make sure you get a variety of protein sources each day, so be sure to include chia seeds with breakfast, quinoa at lunch and beans in your dinner, as good examples.
What Are the Health Benefits of Protein?
As the major building block of the body, eating sufficient protein obviously bestows us with many health benefits. Some of them may include:
As you can see, there's every reason for you to ensure that you have a sufficient protein intake each day.
What Are the Health Benefits of Individual Amino Acids?
The individual amino acids can have their own health benefits, as well. Here, we have a look at a couple of the therapeutic benefits of individual amino acids.
Tryptophan – Tryptophan is not just another amino acid; it is a pre-cursor to both serotonin and melatonin, which are two very important neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters have impacts on everything from mood to sleep to digestive function, so consuming enough tryptophan to support the production of them is vital for overall health and well-being.
Tyrosine - Tyrosine is a powerhouse amino acid, as the pre-cursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as a pre-cursor to thyroid hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Tyrosine can therefore aid in weight maintenance, mood balance, concentration and stress.
Cysteine, glutamine and glycine – These three combined together in the body can create glutathione, the master antioxidant of the body. Glutathione protects us from the damages of oxidative stress, and is implicated as protective in multiple health conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis.
The different health benefits associated with different amino acids are why it's so important to enjoy a variety of different protein sources, especially if following a plant-based diet.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein?
When it comes to the diet, there is always such a thing of 'too much' of any nutrient. Protein is no exception.
The main issue is that excessive protein will mean that you might not be getting enough of your other nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins or fiber. If you're eating steak at every meal, you probably don't feel like eating an avocado or a big salad with it.
Too much protein might also be a strain on your digestive enzymes, and could cause digestive problems in the long term. Research suggests it could also strain the kidneys, impact on bone density, and that it could have a mechanism in some cancers.
Your best bet is to include some type of protein with each meal, and only supplement if your diet is usually insufficient, you have a medical condition that requires higher protein intake, or as part of a personalized diet/training program.
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