Nutrition is so complicated. This article covers the basics on protein as a reference when you find you need a review.
This article covers what proteins do, how your body puts protein to use, how much protein you should have every day, and quality plant sources to incorporate into your diet on a regular basis so you don’t have to think to hard about it.
First, understand that it is proteins that form our physical structure. Second, proteins form the signaling mechanisms that animate your physical structure.
What Proteins Do
1. Proteins provide structure to all the body tissue, bony and soft, forming the cytoskeletal elements that are the lattice for our physical form, like the filaments you see in fiberglass or rice paper. Proteins also make up the contractile components of the body tissue, allowing a certain amount of “give” to our bones, muscles, skin, hair, and nails.
2. Cell-to-cell signaling is necessary to make the metabolic process of your body hum along smoothly, and these regulating components are all made of protein. Receptors on the surface of the cell act as the launching and landing pads for neurotransmitters and hormones, antigens secure immunity, channels transport materials in and out of cells, and enzymes break up these connections so that the metabolic processes can continue to move forward in an orderly way.
Protein is the most abundant component in our bodies. We need to consume an adequate supply through our diet, but not too much, because our bodies can only process and utilize so much. If you eat more than you need in a day, your body will convert it to fat.
Food sources of protein are diverse and plentiful. Needs vary depending on age, gender, and activity level, so it’s important to find how much it right for you.
Protein Digestion, Assimilation, and Synthesis
Protein digestion starts in the stomach, where the enzyme pepsin breaks down into shorter chains of amino acids. Next, the pancreas releases the enzyme trypsin, which breaks the amino acids down further, and with the aid of several additional enzymes, the protein is finally broken down into single amino acids. In the small intestine the amino acids are absorbed in the blood capillaries of the small intestine’s villi, to travel in the bloodstream to the liver, which synthesizes amino acids into many proteins.
Just like fats are made up of fatty acids, so too do proteins have their building blocks, the amino acids. The primary structure of a protein is a string of amino acids, forming a peptide chain. Through a complicated process of chemical and electrical bonding, amino acids form the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures that compose all of our tissue, as well as the signaling molecules and the mechanisms that facilitate this communication.
The human body can produce most amino acids form the break down products of digestion, but it cannot make 9 of the 20 known amino acids, and all 20 are needed to form a complete protein. These 9 are referred to as “the essential amino acids.”
Animal products are complete proteins, and plant products are not, but when combined with other plant proteins, the body puts them together within a 24-hour period to make them into a complete protein. The key take-away for vegetarians is to eat a variety of foods daily so the body will have steady supply of amino acids for its protein assembly process.
Your kidneys and liver will be overworked if you consume more protein than you need. The body reacts to too much protein by either shedding it through the excretory process or as mentioned above, converting it to fat.
It’s not easy to get a straight answer on protein requirements, because they vary with age, gender, and lifestyle habits. Further, as practitioners of eastern medicine utilizing Chinese dietary recommendations, we might outline a ratio of protein consumption that is greater or lesser, depending on your constitution and health needs at the moment.
Begin by figuring out your caloric needs in a day, then get a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 35% of calories from protein sources. It has been proven through research studies that protein will increase satiety, so if you can include some in each meal this will help with weight maintenance, if that is of concern to you.
Plant Food Sources
Beans, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables and fruit all have amino acids, and some have complete proteins. Better yet, you’ll be getting a hefty dose of anti-oxidants along with your protein at the same time. Here’s a sampling of protein amounts to give you a general idea that protein abounds across the food spectrum:
Split peas, cooked 1 cup: 16 g
Black beans, cooked 1 cup: 15 g
Couscous, uncooked 1cup: 22 g
Barley, pearled, uncooked 1 cup: 10 g
Wheat flour, whole grain, uncooked 1 cup: 16 g
Brussel sprouts, cooked 1 cup: 4 g
Beets, cooked 1 cup: 3 g
Kale, steamed 1 cup: 3g
Potato, baked: 3 g
Blueberries, 1 cup: 2 g
Knowing that plants, especially beans and legumes, contain protein may help lighten the need to eat some animal source out of concern for getting enough protein. Now that you understand the basics you can be more mindful about why it’s important to get adequate amounts daily.
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