By Shana Daniel, R.H.N.
Like so many commonly used words in our vocabulary, protein sits at the top for one of the most widely used and perhaps most misunderstood.
What is it? Why is it important?
Protein is an integral component of every cell in the human body. It’s used to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals which regulate everyday function. Your body uses it to build and repair muscle tissue. Your hair and nails are composed primarily of it and is essential in the complexity of your skin.
Amino acids are compounds that combine to make proteins. When a person eats a food that contains protein, their digestive system breaks the protein down into amino acids. The body then combines the amino acids in various ways to carry out bodily functions.
We need 20 different amino acids to maintain good health and normal function of our bodies. Individuals must obtain nine of these amino acids, called the ESSENTIAL amino acids, through food. The nine essential amino acids perform several important and varied jobs in your body:
- Phenylalanine: Plays an integral role in the structure and function of proteins and enzymes and the production of other amino acids.
- Valine: Helps stimulate muscle growth and regeneration and is involved in energy production.
- Threonine: An important component of the skin and connective tissue. It also plays a role in fat metabolism and immune function.
- Tryptophan: Often associated with causing drowsiness, tryptophan has many other functions. It’s needed to maintain proper nitrogen balance and is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates your appetite, sleep and mood.
- Methionine: Plays an important role in metabolism and detoxification. It’s also necessary for tissue growth and the absorption of zinc and selenium, minerals that are vital to your health.
- Leucine: Like valine, leucine is a branched-chain amino acid that is critical for protein synthesis and muscle repair. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, stimulates wound healing and produces growth hormones.
- Isoleucine: Heavily concentrated in muscle tissue, it’s also important for immune function, hemoglobin production and energy regulation.
- Lysine: Plays major roles in protein synthesis, hormone and enzyme production and the absorption of calcium. It’s also important for energy production, immune function and the production of collagen and elastin.
- Histidine: Used to produce histamine, a neurotransmitter that is vital to immune response, digestion, sexual function and sleep-wake cycles. It’s critical for maintaining the myelin sheath, a protective barrier that surrounds your nerve cells.
A healthy body can manufacture the other 11 amino acids, so these do not usually need to enter the body through the diet. Amino acids build muscles, cause chemical reactions in the body, transport nutrients, prevent illness, and carry out other functions.
Amino acid deficiency can result in decreased immunity, digestive problems, fertility issues, depression, lower mental alertness, slowed growth in children, and many other health issues.
Whether you’re a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan, gone is the age-old belief that essential proteins have to be consumed in one sitting. Generally, the adult body absorbs approximately up to 30 grams in one meal and children even less. Provided you are eating a healthy revolving diet including nutrient density, proper hydration and proteins at 2 of 3 average meals per day, you can be assured that the adequate levels of protein to carry out the necessary functions of your body are being maintained. There are always exceptions to this for other health circumstances which require more or less of course.
Just as the amino acids listed above are the building blocks of protein, my building blocks mantra to health through nutrition is variety, consistency and balance with moderation no matter what age you are.