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Protein is the leviathan among nutrients. Carbs and fats are shunned now and then but never protein – it has the best reputation among them all. Why? Because it has many benefits for the body. While we know that, do we know why we need it and more importantly, how the body uses it? Let’s start at the beginning.
It is one of the three macronutrients required by the body in considerable amounts. Protein is not the main source of energy like fats and carbs but it still provides 4 calories with each gram. However, protein is responsible for growth – it is the building block of the body.
Most animal products like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs are packed with protein and are thus labeled when it comes to diet and nutrition. However, plant-based foods like beans, peas, nuts, and seeds also contain protein but in lower quantities as compared to animal products. Whole grains, for that matter, contain more protein than refined grains. Consult expert nutritionists with FITFEAST – your personal nutritionist. Find out about alternate food options that can satisfy your need for protein.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are, in turn, made up of elements like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Amino acids link up to form chains that are then called proteins. There are 20 types of amino acids that are categorized into 2 groups – essential and nonessential. The body cannot produce essential amino acids and thus we must eat protein-rich foods. Nonessential amino acids can be synthesized from the essential amino acids through protein breakdown. If the body is unable to synthesize amino acids properly, some nonessential amino acids might become essential but this happens rarely.
You must have heard of some foods referred to as complete proteins. They are termed so when they contain all essential amino acids, which are 9 in number. All animal products are complete proteins as well as soy. Most plant foods are missing or are low in essential amino acids. However, vegans and vegetarians can satiate their bodies’ protein needs by consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods. Incomplete proteins – foods that do not contain all essential amino acids – lack only 1 or 2 amino acids and you can easily make up for those by eating other vegetarian foods. For example, grains are low on lysine (essential amino acid) and beans in methionine (essential amino acid) and if you eat both together, say beans with rice or toast with nut butter, you get all the essential amino acids. Almost like when you eat chicken or fish. As long as you eat different sources of protein throughout the day, you do not necessarily have to include them in each meal.
Imagine you ate chicken or fish after a leg workout yesterday, and the protein after digestion went straight to the glutes and hamstrings. Well, that’s not exactly how it happens. Dietary proteins are broken down and then reassembled with the already-existing proteins in the body. The body breaks the source of protein into amino acids irrespective of the source – animal or plant-based. Breaking down proteins takes time and effort; lesser than fats but more than carbs. Protein-rich foods need to be chewed well.
When proteins are mixed with the gastric juices of the stomach, which contain acids and enzymes, they are broken down before passing on to the intestines. This is where the proteins are broken down completely. Once they are broken down into single amino acids, they are transported through the blood to the different muscle groups where they foster repair and growth.
The liver is responsible for arranging the amino acids in an order of their need in the body. The body needs a variety of proteins to regenerate and replace cells and tissues. Some proteins assist the immune system in creating antibodies to fight off bacteria and viruses. Others help in chemical reactions, molecule transportation, and DNA synthesis.
The body’s need for protein is determined by factors such as age, body composition, health, sex, and levels of activity. Once the tissues get their fill of protein, they discard the extra proteins, unlike carbs that are stored in the body, which can be used whenever the need arises. For this reason, we need to consume protein every day.
Make a conscious effort to consume proteins in at least one meal every day. Having a protein-rich meal after a workout is essential for good results. Consult expert nutritionists to find out which foods you should eat in what quantity and what time during the day.