What is Protein?
It was the Dutch chemist, Gerard Mulder, in 1839, that first discovered the nitrogen-containing compound protein. The word ‘protein’ even originates from the greek word proteios, meaning “of prime importance.”
Protein tends to be associated with meat, eggs, poultry and fish. Yet with plant-based eating becoming more and more popular for a variety of reasons, I find that there is often some confusion about sources and types of protein.
What are good sources? If I give up meat will I become protein deficient? Do I need protein powder and other supplements to build muscles? Where do vegetarians get their protein? Do I need to combine different types of plant protein together in the same meal?
Protein is made up of essential and non-essential amino acids. The latter can be made in your body, but essential amino acids cannot be stored in the body and must be eaten in your diet on a daily basis. A food that contains all nine essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Like beads on a string, they form together in various sequences to build the proteins needed for the many everyday biochemical processes in your body.
Protein must first be broken down into amino acids and then they’re rebuilt into the protein chains specific to human muscles. These amino acids come from either your diet or your body’s own store. If a chronic shortage of amino acids develops, this building ceases to continue and your health may be affected. Your own muscles will be signalled to release protein to support the body’s growth and repair, which is not ideal.
Protein isn’t stored in the same way that vitamins or energy reserves in the form of glycogen are stored in your muscles and liver, so it must be replaced regularly.
This is why protein is so essential:
- For Building Lean, Strong Muscles
Protein helps to improve muscle strength by repairing torn muscle fibres through exercise and everyday wear and tear.
2. For Healthy Hair Growth
Your hair is largely comprised of keratin, which is the hardened protein that gives hair its structure. Without enough protein in your diet to form keratin, your body may not be as efficient in replacing the hairs that shed naturally everyday and the hair you do grow may be of poorer quality.
3. Healthy Nails
Our fingernails are mainly made from keratin, the hardened protein that also gives our hair its structure, and so the nutrients that most benefit our hair also benefit our skin.
4. Bone Health
Protein helps to improve calcium absorption, making it an integral part of bone health.
5. For Normal Biological Function
Protein is essential for growth and repair in our bodies and for the production of transport molecules, enzymes, hormones and antibodies.
What foods to choose?
Eating protein with every meal or snack is great habit to get into, as it keeps the levels of amino acids continuously topped up. Animal protein foods are a good source of essential amino acids, but a wide range of plant foods are also considered complete sources of protein, including nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and whole grains.
I add nuts and seeds, nut butters, beans, lentils, peas, quinoa, tempeh, high-quality protein powder and many other great sources of plant-based protein to almost all my meals, smoothies and snacks. Hemp seeds are one of my favourite compete plant proteins to add to salads, soups and smoothies. Just three tablespoons of hemp seeds gives us fourteen grams of protein. They also help to keep me feeling full and keep blood sugar levels steady.
Protein is essential for building and maintaining healthy muscle mass, so I usually make a protein smoothie to drink straight after a resistance workout to boost muscle recovery and repair. There’s a great range of healthy, natural and plant-based protein powders widely available now.