You know that aside from water, protein is the most abundant compound found in the human body? Protein is found in every cell and tissue, and along with healthy fats, protein plays many critical roles in keeping you alive and healthy.
Most of our bodies’ proteins are structural. The most obvious proteins that most of us would recognize are muscles. Muscle tissue attaches to bone, and when they contract they allow us to move. There is also specialized muscle that controls organ functions such as your heart contractions, digestive movements, and elimination functions. Although bone is predominantly calcium, the mineral is held together with protein. Nerves are mostly fatty compounds, but protein is the framework that holds nerves together. Blood vessels, our organs, and our skin all have structural proteins.
The importance of protein intake for humans has been known for a very long time. Without it you would lack the building blocks needed for all tissue repair, critical enzymes and hormones you need for all of your metabolic functions, and antibodies that help your body defend against infections. Proteins are vital to all living processes and undertake a wide range of functions quintessential to sustain life. Thus, proteins are one of the most important nutrients required by your body and must be consumed in adequate quantity and quality in your diet.
What are Proteins?
Proteins are large molecules that are made up of smaller chemicals called amino acids. Humans need 20 different amino acids in order to produce all the proteins that your body requires. As it turns out, your body can make adequate amounts of 10 of the amino acids on its own, but in order to get enough of the other 10, you must get them from the food that you eat. This is why consuming protein is essential by definition.
Proteins in food fall into two categories:
1. Complete proteins: These proteins come from animal products such as chicken, fish, beef, bison, venison, duck, turkey and pork, and they contain virtually all the essential amino acids needed to help keep our bodies fit and healthy.
2. Incomplete proteins: These are found in plant foods such as grains, nuts, beans and vegetables, and provide a limited array of amino acids. Incomplete proteins must be eaten in larger quantities and combinations for you to obtain all that is needed for optimal health and function.
Obviously, animal products are your best bet for adequate protein intake, but this does not mean that if you are a vegetarian you will die of protein deprivation. Vegetarians may get enough protein by combining foods such as vegetables, beans, lentils, and brown rice, to name a few. However, it typically does take more overall caloric intake to get adequate amounts of protein if you rely solely on a vegetarian diet. This can be problematic for attaining ideal weight, blood sugar management, and optimal health. That being said, the quality of animal protein is very important and therefore, being careful and knowing the source of any animal protein you consume is critical to avoiding the adverse health effects associated with grain-fed, hormone-, antibiotic-, and chemically-laden meats. Remember, whatever the animal was fed is what you’re eating and what ultimately ends up as a building block for your body.