Protein is second only to water in importance to the body; it’s a crucial nutritional need.
It makes up 20% of our bodyweight and is the primary component of the body’s structures; muscle, hair, skin, nails, eyes, internal organs and heart. It is needed for growth and maintenance of body tissue, through pregnancy and during illness. Infants and growing children need as much per kilo of bodyweight as manual labourers and bodybuilders.
Protein also builds many of the body’s functional elements; blood cells, immune system (including anti-bodies), hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. The brain is about 10% protein (plus 10% fats, 80% water).
Proteins provide the supportive scaffolding of the cell and act as gateways on the cell membrane, directing materials into and out of the cell. The intricate cellular functions at the nucleus of a cell are carried out by proteins where they even dictate the structure of DNA. Proteins form enzymes, the catalysts for myriad chemical reactions continuously generating energy and power in an inconceivable number of cellular processes.
The base unit of protein is the amino acid. The protein we eat is cleaved apart by digestion, right down to single amino acids. These are absorbed and circulate freely in the blood and lymph – the “amino acid pool”. Here they’re available to construct whatever protein is needed; joined together in precise order by transcription from the template of the DNA into amazingly long, twisted and curling chains.
There are twenty two amino acids and eight of them are essential; that is, we have to get them from food because the body can’t make them out of anything else. The other fourteen can be constructed from the essential eight. If one of the eight essential amino acids is in short supply it will put a limit on how much of the proteins requiring it can be synthesized. Just as a broken barrel can only be filled as high as the shortest stave.
The amino acid pool can’t be stored and only lasts about 24 hours in circulation. If it becomes insufficient for the needs of the body then skeletal muscle and organ tissue would be broken down to replenish it. Excess dietary protein is no benefit, the amino acids are recycled as carbohydrate; the nitrogen is cleaved off, converted to ammonia and eliminated via the kidney. If carbohydrate becomes excessive as a result it will be converted to body fat. The nitrogen creates an acidic waste for the body to deal with, putting stress on the systems which regulate the precise acid/alkaline balance of the blood. Some inevitably gets stored throughout the body in the extra-cellular matrix.
So eating somewhere around the right amount every day is a key element of good nutrition.
Because it’s such a basic nutritional need we have a hunger for it. That is, higher protein meals tend to be more satisfying. A diet too low in protein can cause cravings for less nutritious food and leads to depletion over time because we don’t have a protein reserve apart from muscle and organ tissue. Yet protein does get recycled to join the amino acid pool and the finer tuned our health and digestion are the less we need to eat. Interestingly this fine tuning actually shifts our metabolic balance creating an amazingly healthy dynamic, a re-balancing from physical wellness right through to emotional harmonies.
How much do we need?
Some feel they need large amounts, like body builders buying plastic tubs of it (covered in pictures of inspiring muscular bodies and a long list of ingredients with an incredible cost per gram of pure protein!). Others don’t worry about it at all, like vegetarians and vegans who feel that all foods have protein anyway and they’ll get enough.
Use the protein counting guide to calculate how much is recommended for a person of your bodyweight and activity level. This is the absolute upper level; most people will be adequately nourished with around 75% of this.
Calculate how much you’re eating now. Compare the recommended amounts to your actual intake. If you’re eating more it should be reduced.
If you’re eating less consider slowly increasing toward three quarters of the recommended amount. You’ll probably feel a lift in vitality. Increase slowly because it may be challenging; you may not have the appetite for it, you may need digestive support and there’s the cost, re-adjustment to meal size and meal preparation. Be closely aware of your feelings, go gently.
We’re caught in the human dilemma that we have to kill something to eat (even if it’s a plant). There are huge problems with our food supply, especially of protein, most meat production is now industrialized. Meat has a great range of amino acids but the energy is dead and cooking degrades protein. Yet many of us have difficulty digesting vegetarian protein and its protein content is low; in total and in proportion to carbohydrate.
There’s no easy solution to this dilemma. Yet protein remains a key nutritional need and an anchor point for balancing a diet to suit your metabolism. Try to make the best moral and nutritional choices, stay aware of your feelings and use the guidelines here to fine tune the macro-nutrients in your diet.
The correct amount is important, day by day. Click here for the protein counting chart