Protein seems to be all the rage these days. We’re told to increase protein intake and cut carbs. While I’m a believer in the efficacy of doing this, I often wondered why it works. I should warn you that this post is about to unleash my inner medical school nerd. But the question should be asked: what’s so special about protein?
Let’s start with the basics. Proteins are responsible for conducting most of the chemical reactions in our bodies. They carry substances to one area from another, assist with signaling, handle much of the immune response, and essentially keep us alive. Proteins also have a structural role in that they are necessary for proper functioning of muscle, skin, and bone.
All proteins are made up of basic units called amino acids which are connected together in long strings and folded into complicated shapes (proteins). Amino acids can be classified as either essential (9 total) or non-essential (11 total). Essential amino acids are ones that the body cannot make on it’s own, and so we need to get them from the diet. Non-essential amino acids are just the opposite, and the body has no trouble making these. Sometimes, non-essential amino acids can become essential when the body has a problem making them. This distinction becomes important when considering dietary needs.
The differences in amino acid classification come into play when we think about the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are those that contain all of the essential amino acids. Eggs are considered king when it comes to complete proteins, which is great because they are relatively inexpensive and can be easily prepared. Other examples of complete proteins include milk, cheese, yogurt, beef, poultry, and fish. Most plant products are considered incomplete proteins: beans, nuts, grains, and seeds. Luckily for the vegetarians out there, soy falls under the complete protein category.
For young healthy adults, 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is recommended daily. But what constitutes a “young healthy adult?” Did you know that any kind of wound, fracture, or muscle tear puts you in a category of needing more protein? The elderly, pregnant, and individuals with chronic diseases such as cancer also each require increased protein intake. Injuries can only heal when there is adequate collagen made to repair damaged tissue, and collagen happens to be a protein. The elderly have a decreased muscle mass, which means there is less protein available for use within the body. Pregnant patients have an increased protein requirement because they’re consuming protein for two, while individuals with chronic diseases need protein to help fight inflammation and also promote healing. Protein needs can increase to greater than 1 gram per kilogram of body weight in these circumstances.
The upshot of this is that protein is incredibly important! It has the ability to help us heal and grow. And with that I leave you with this slightly funny ecard:
Feel free to share your knowledge of protein and protein products below!