If our bodies were a city, proteins would be the bricks used to build it. That’s the analogy I often use. It’s an oversimplification but it works to establish the importance of this nutrient. One of proteins’ many functions are as the building blocks of the body. They are the main component of our muscles, bones, hair, fingernails and the outer layer of our skin. Other than being important in building the structures that make up our bodies, proteins are also extremely important in how our bodies function. Our immune systems, many of our enzymes and hormones are made of proteins and even the transportation of oxygen from lungs to the cells around our bodies and healing from injuries and cuts are facilitated by proteins. So proteins are a pretty big deal.
Proteins are molecules made from amino acids and come in a lot of varieties. There are 20 types of amino acids our bodies use. Think of each amino acid as a bead of a different color. A protein is made when these amino acid beads are strung together in a particular pattern and formed into a specific shape. So with 20 different colors there are a lot of different ways in which the amino acid beads can be strung. This is why there are so many different proteins, and each type of protein has a specific function in our body. We must eat proteins because, out of the 20 amino acids our bodies need, we can only make about 4 of them from scratch. The rest we need to get from our food in order to have all the right raw materials to build our bodies’ proteins.
We get a lot of proteins from eggs, meat – which is mostly animal muscles, milk and other animal products. We also get proteins from plants. Some plant foods like peas, beans, nuts, avocados and quinoa are known for having a lot of protein. Thus the BIG MYTH I want to dispel here is that vegetarians or vegans lack sources of protein. That’s just not true. What is true is that they need to eat a greater variety of foods to get the complete array of amino acids our bodies need. This is because animal proteins are similar to the proteins in our own bodies, so you can get all the amino acid varieties you need from meat. Whereas one type of plant, like brown rice, may not have every single type of amino acid in it to build muscle (because the plant doesn’t have muscles) but a different plant, like lentils, will have some of the amino acids the brown rice was missing – so your plate of rice and lentils together will give you the proteins you need anyway.
For the most part people eat enough proteins in their regular meals and a lot of it gets used in all those many many functions. When we do not have any carbohydrates or fats (or if your body is experiencing starvation), our bodies even use proteins to make glucose for energy. That, however is our bodies’ last resort because we need the protein for all these other important functions. If we do not eat enough proteins we will have a deficiency that can lead to disease. More often people are getting more than enough protein in their daily diets. Fortunately we use a lot of it. But if we eat more than we can use our bodies will try to store the potential energy in it by converting it to, you guessed it, fat.
People who need a lot of protein are those who are in recovery – for the immune system which relies heavily on proteins or to heal and rebuild our bodies after injury; pregnant women, because she is building a whole other human being inside of her; and people who are building muscle such as bodybuilders. Most exercisers already eat enough protein to build muscle with exercise, but if you’re going above and beyond with the workouts, you’re going to need more protein to build all that extra muscle. Be smart though, because if you’re not actually exercising enough to use the extra protein to build more muscle, all that extra protein that’s not actually being used will get converted and stored as fat. People who are most likely to be deficient in protein are vegetarians or vegans who haven’t quite figured out the system of getting the best quality proteins by eating a variety of protein-rich plant foods. Once you learn to do this though, any vegetarian or vegan can meet all their protein needs just like non-vegetarians/ non-vegans.
So that’s your proteins in a nutshell. It’s really important and our bodies need it. Next health talk is in two weeks and we’ll learn more about Vitamins.
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