Eat Your Protein Stay Healthy

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Eat Your Protein! Stay Healthy!

Why Do We Need Protein?

Protein is found in every cell of the body. All muscles, glands and organs have protein as a major component. It is also present in many of the foods we eat (which is where the body gets most of its protein). Almost every function in the body utilizes protein. Some of the functions requiring protein are:

  • Antibodies: proteins are involved in defending the body from foreign invaders.
  • Movement: proteins are responsible for muscle contraction and movement.
  • Enzymes: proteins that speed up chemical reactions. For example, lactase breaks down the sugar lactose found in milk and pepsin. A digestive enzyme works in the stomach to break down proteins from food.
  • Hormonal: proteins that help coordinate certain bodily activities, communicating as messengers. Examples: Insulin controls blood sugar, oxytocin stimulates contractions during childbirth and somatotropin is a growth hormone that helps build muscles. There are over 700 different hormones in your body!
  • Structural: proteins that provide support. Keratins strengthen protective coverings such as hair, quills, feathers, horns and beaks, and collagens and elastins provide support for connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments.
  • Storage: proteins that store amino acids for future use in creating new proteins.
  • Transport: proteins that move molecules from one place to another around the body. A good example is hemoglobin, which transports oxygen through the blood.

What is Protein?

Protein is a long chain of amino acids—22 different types—all of which our bodies need to function properly.

Amino acids, known as the building blocks of proteins, are chemical compounds (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen) that combine together in different structures to form the many types of proteins that the body requires. One type of protein, for example, is collagen. This is a protein that our body needs for the strength, elasticity and composition of our hair and skin.

Not having high-quality protein impairs the body’s ability to function properly. Diets that are very low in protein or that are very restrictive in the types of protein consumed (for example, vegetarian/vegan diets) may not provide a high quality protein. Also protein digestibility depends on the type of protein (animal proteins, for instance, are more digestible than plant proteins), as well as the method in which the food was prepared.

Essential and non-essential amino acids

There are two classifications of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Through digestion the proteins we eat are broken down into individual amino acids that are then absorbed and reformed to create new proteins that our body uses. Out of the 22 types of amino acids, 14 are non-essential because they are manufactured by the body and we don’t need to eat certain foods to obtain them. The other 8 amino acids, called the essential amino acids, our body cannot produce so we need to acquire them through the food we eat.

Protein quality is dependent on having all the essential amino acids in the proper proportions. If one or more of the essential amino acids are not present in sufficient amounts, the protein in a food is considered incomplete and of lower quality. I find many of my patients are confused about whether a food provides a complete protein.

It's commonly thought that if all 8 essential amino acids are present in a food, then this food would be considered a complete protein. Technically this is true, however, the quality of that protein could be questionable if the quantity of a particular essential amino acid is too small. Soy products are a good example of this. Like all legumes (bean family) soy is deficient in the two essential amino acids methionine and cysteine. And the commercial processing method used today also makes the very fragile amino acid lysine dysfunctional. So even though all the essential amino acids are present in the product, it is essentially unusable as a high quality, complete protein.

How much of each amino acid is necessary to make a complete protein? Estimating the daily requirement for the essential amino acids is not easy. The numbers in the table below have been revised considerably over the last 20 years as scientists continue their nutrition research. They are the recommended daily amounts currently in use for essential amino acids in adult humans.The table is provided by the World Health Organization.

Essential Amino acid(s)

mg per
1 kg  body weight (2.2 pounds)

mg per
70 kg
(154 pounds)

mg per
100 kg
(220 pounds)

I Isoleucine

20

1400

2000

L Leucine

39

2730

3900

K Lysine

30

2100

3000

M Methionine
+ C Cysteine

 10.4
+ 4.6
(15 total)

1050

1500

F Phenylalanine
+ Y Tyrosine

25 (total)

1750

2500

T Threonine

15

1050

1500

W Tryptophan

4

280

400

V Valine

26

1820

2600

Quantities of amino acids needed to make a complete protein

Learn More About Nutritional Values

You can find out the nutritional values of food by going to a website like this one: Self Nutrition Data. Use the Nutrition Search Tool under Tools to find a specific nutrient in foods or type in the food name in the search bar to discover all its nutritional information.

What Types of Foods Provide Protein?

There are some foods that contain all of the 8 essential amino acids required to form the new proteins. These foods are called "complete" proteins and tend to come from animal sources such as meat, dairy products, eggs, fish, shellfish and poultry.

The proteins that are termed "incomplete" proteins are usually lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids. They are generally found in vegetable products like fruits, vegetables, pulses (such as beans), grains and nuts.

However, by combining two or more of the "incomplete" proteins, a complete supply of essential amino acids can be made available. For example, baked beans on toast or rice and beans will form a complete protein and give the body all the essential amino acids.

Essential amino acids in plant-based foods

As a quick reference, the link here lists the 8 essential amino acids and what plant-based foods have them. This may be very helpful for vegans (those who do not eat any animal products) who are trying to consume complete proteins. This is not an exhaustive list but does contain some of the popular food items: essential amino acids in plant-based foods

How Much Protein Do We Need?

There are many differing views on how much protein you need. The USDA and Heart Association recommend consuming:

.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body mass every day.

I believe that some people require more and some require less. It is very individualized. For example, if you are doing a treatment program with us and healing rapidly, under a lot of stress, are pregnant, recovering from an illness, or participate in intense weight or endurance training you should be consuming more protein.

Lets take this .8 grams per kilogram recommendation and calculate how much protein that is:

70 kg (154 pounds) X .8 = 56 grams of protein.

That's 56 grams of protein for a sedentary person.

Exceptions

As I said earlier, protein intake is very individualized. With patients who have a damaged liver or thyroid problems, I might recommend that they eat less protein until their health recovers. My patients who are under a great deal of stress or who have adrenal burnout, I might recommend a higher level of protein, as much as 75 grams per day.

Consume a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day if you are attempting to improve your health, lose fat and/or tone up your muscles, you will get the best results according to some studies. And finally, there is NO documented proof that indicates high amounts of protein or higher levels of protein intake in general lead to kidney malfunction in healthy people.

So, as you can see protein is very important to the healthy functioning of your body. When you make food choices; keep in mind that not all proteins are created equal. Using these guidelines will certainly help keep your body functioning at its best.

More Information

Nutritional Challenges of Vegetarianism. An article about how vegetarians/vegans can be healthier by learning about food combining and debunking some myths on plant-based proteins.

Protein values found in food. This document references the amount of proteins found in many foods. This will be helpful for determining the amount of protein you consume daily.

*Results may vary from person to person.