Protein! The nutrient that everyone is trying to get more of. We’re a society seeking high protein snacks and meals, which isn’t a bad thing! Eat meat to get muscles, isn’t that right? Well, sure, but actually protein plays a lot of roles in our body! Let’s take a closer look at proteins.
What is a protein?
Proteins are a macronutrient, providing four calories per gram. Proteins are made up of amino acids, small building blocks that come together in various combinations to make the macronutrient protein. There are twenty kinds of amino acids. Eleven of these are nonessential amino acids, which just means the body is capable of synthesizing them. That leaves nine remaining essential amino acids, which the body cannot synthesize. This means we need to get them from an outside source – food!
These twenty amino acids link together in thousands of combinations, end to end, to form long chains with peptide bonds. That’s not really important, though. They make a long conga line and form thousands of different kinds of proteins, depending on how they’re lined up. You can see these bonds being broken when a protein is exposed to acid or heat, also called denaturation. Ever fried an egg? When you first crack it, the “white” of the egg is actually clear, but as you expose it to heat in the skillet, it turns white! You’re witnessing proteins breaking up into amino acids.
Our stomach is an acidic environment. When we swallow food that have proteins, it is in the stomach that they are broken down into amino acids, which is how they are absorbed. From there, our cells decide which proteins the body requires and recycles the amino acids to rebuild the proper protein. It’s like legos!
What do proteins do for my body?
We’re all aware that proteins help to build strong muscles, but they’re so much more than that! They’re actually in every cell in your body, as part of the structural cell wall. It also helps to build bones and teeth, which, in order to be formed, require a network of collagen to be laid down first. Protein is in your artery walls, helping them to withstand changing blood pressure. It’s even in your skin! Any time you are growing or repairing damage, proteins are hard at work to create new tissue (including muscle). This is why proteins are so important in growing kids!
Not only that, but proteins also act as enzymes, or helpers with certain chemical reactions, hormones, which send messages to your body indicating a change must be made, regulators of fluid and acid-base balance, transporters of other molecules in the blood, and antibodies! That’s a lot of roles to fill. If your body is low on carbohydrates, protein will even act as energy for your cells – but there’s a good reason to avoid that.
Proteins are awesome! Where can I get protein in my diet?
Proteins are awesome! They’re found in a ton of foods, both animal- and plant-based. Some foods are complete proteins, which mean they contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Other foods may only contain a few, and are called incomplete proteins. By mixing and matching incomplete proteins, you can use complementary proteins to build a complete protein. This would mean if food A has five essential amino acids, and food B had the remaining four essential amino acids, consuming them together would be complementary and provide a complete protein! (A great example of this is rice and beans!) Here are some foods in which you’ll find protein:
- Meats, Poultry, and Fish all contain 7 grams of protein per ounce.
- Eggs also contain 7 grams of protein for each egg! They are actually considered the reference protein, a perfect combination of all essential amino acids.
- Milk and dairy products. Milk has 8 grams of protein per cup (8 oz).
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes. Think almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, peas, and every kind of bean on the planet! Mmmmm…
- Vegetables and grains even have 2-3 grams of protein per serving!
Hopefully now we can get rid of that proteins = meat = muscles mindset and recognize protein (and foods that aren’t meat!) for all of the wonderful things they do for our bodies.