Recently, we spoke about the ins and outs of carbohydrates, an essential macronutrient in our diet. Today, I want to address the question “What is protein?”. When you scroll through instagram and facebook, you are bombarded with the idea of consuming enough protein to attain your fitness goals and are often told most of us as lacking it in our diet. Protein is much more than a nutrient needed to build muscle; the has a number of essential jobs in our body.
What is Protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient needed in our diet. Similar to carbohydrates, protein also has building blocks or units known as Amino Acids. There are 22 amino acids that can combine in many different pattern to make long chains, forming different proteins. Our body is able to produce most of these amino acids however 9 essential amino acids can only come from our diet. A sufficient amount of each amino acid is needed in the diet.
Foods can be divided into two types: complete proteins and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are those containing the full 9 amino acids and thus are foods rich in protein, while the incomplete do not have the full 9 essential amino acids. Complete proteins include eggs, meat, fish, dairy, poultry, quinoa. Incomplete proteins are found in foods such as grains, legumes and vegetables. With meals containing only incomplete proteins, it is important to have a mix to attain as many of the amino acids as is possible.
Why do we need Protein?
Protein plays an essential role in many of our bodily systems. Here are some of the ways in which protein is used:
- Hair, skin and nails: We all want to feel beautiful on the outside and protein is super important in helping our hair, skin and nails stay healthy. Keratin is the protein needed to keep hair and nails strong and is often found in products out on sale.
- Muscles: Protein is important in helping to build, repair and sustain muscle tissues as it makes up a large component on the muscle.
- Hormones: Some hormones, such as Insulin, are made from protein.
- Enzymes: You might remember from science lessons that enzymes are proteins that enable chemical reactions to take place in the body such as digestion.
While severe malnutrition of protein is relatively rare in the developed world, eating a lack of protein can affect the body in many ways. Muscles can become weak and take longer to recover following exercise. If our diet is severely lacking protein, the body breaks down muscle as it is the richest source of protein. You may find your hair and nails become dry and brittle. Protein also plays a big role in our immune system, allowing for antibodies to be made to protect us against bacteria. This too can be affected if our protein is not sufficient.
How much protein should we be eating?
UK recommendations are for the average adult to consume 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For example, if you weigh 60kg you should aim for 45g of protein. However, protein requirements differ with age, illness, activity levels and if you are breastfeeding/pregnant. Anyone who takes up exercise on a regular basis should increase their protein content to be around 1.2g per kilogram of body weight per day. The reason is to help recovery and prevent breakdown of the muscle, as well as continue to build up the muscle tissue.