By Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Protein takes first place in all living beings, it is a required nutrient for basic health. The Greek word proteos means “primary” and next to water, protein is the most primary and essential substance for our overall health. What protein is to cell nutrition, bricks are to a tower; without protein our bodies would have no structure. It is found in every cell, muscle and tissue of our body.
Metabolic mechanisms that control body functions, such as enzymes and hormones, are also made from protein. Proteins form blood cells and antibodies that protect us from illness, disease and infections. It is evident that protein provides fuel that is vital to sustain efficient functionality in all our cells, muscles, systems and blood.
While human protein is sourced from the food we eat, what our bodies do with it is a complicated process. Once animal and plant proteins are consumed our digestive systems break it down with the aid of specific enzymes. These digested proteins are re-synthesized into new proteins that are used to replace cellular membranes that have become weakened or worn out. These secondary proteins, also known as amino acids, are vital for our strength and the integrity of the cells that make up our muscles, ligaments, tendons, skin, hair and nails.
It gets even more complicated. Our bodies require 22 amino acids daily in order to function on a basic level of health. These amino acids are divided into two groups, essential and non-essential amino acids. Fourteen of these amino acids are considered to be non-essential, meaning they can be manufactured by the body rather than taken in through food. The remaining eight are considered essential and are derived from our food. All 22 amino acids work together, and one category cannot function without the other.
Picture going to the grocery store to get your weekly essentials for survival. When you get home you unpack your groceries, and put away your various essentials to the areas of your house where they are best utilized. The toilet paper is stored in or near the bathroom, the laundry soap is stored near the washing machine, and so on. This succession of actions is analogous to how our bodies assimilate protein into essential items your body – your household – uses daily.
There are some foods that contain the eight essential amino acids required to form the new proteins together with the non-essential amino acids. These foods are called complete proteins and come from animal sources of protein such as meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs and some dairy products. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids and are found in grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables. But much like how the sum of two odd numbers equal an even number, the combination of two or more incomplete proteins forms a complete inventory of essential amino acids. A perfect example is found often in developing countries, or in regions where protein is scarce, and that is the simple combination of rice and beans.
Although critics argue against this, carnivores, vegetarians and vegans get adequate amounts of protein through plant-based foods. While carnivores get more meat-based proteins, and therefore a complete protein, vegetarians and vegans need only to combine two or more incomplete plant-based proteins to ensure a complete protein diet.
Surprising as it is, one card-deck sized portion of meat will fulfill a carnivore his or her daily required protein needs. Equally, if not more surprising, our stomachs are roughly the size of our own clenched fist. When our bodies have reached its percentage quota for protein for the day it stores the extra protein in our fat cells. Plant proteins react differently and depending on our metabolism level and body weight, will be digested and nutritionally used by our bodies differently than meat-based proteins. It’s still stored, but it’s stored and ultimately used differently.
Too much meat-based protein can make us feel sluggish and can strain the liver and kidneys. Both are filters for the body and an abundance of protein can create an excess of nitrogen, causing both organs to work harder than necessary to eliminate. Any surplus of protein is converted into glucose by the liver and either used as energy or stored as fat. An excess of protein can also lead to gout, arthritis and osteoporosis.
On the other hand, too little protein can have a long-term impact. A daily dose of protein is required for overall health and a diet repeatedly deficient in protein can cause fatigue, weakness, skin problems, anemia and an unhealthy appearance. Protein is used to repair and create new cells, tissues, hormones, enzymes and muscles and not enough protein can prevent these processes from happening. Children need a lot of protein to help them grow and develop and a lack of adequate protein can lead to a stunted growth, distended stomachs and possibly poor mental development
The best sources of complete and incomplete protein come from the same list that defines a whole foods diet, fish, shellfish, lean meats, eggs, legumes, unprocessed grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. While the combination of foods from a whole foods diet provides enough over-all protein for mostly anyone, those with medical and dietary restrictions may require a different set of recommendations. They are encouraged to consult a nutritionalist or medical advisor savvy in their specific nutritional needs.