Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are what the DNA in every living organism's genes code for. From sage plants, to sea anemones, to giant redwood trees to alligators. All of these beings require the genetic code or ‘message’ to be translated from DNA to RNA to amino acid to protein in order for them to be what one would could consider ‘alive’ and able to move up about and procreate.  Proteins are needed for many physiological functions of the body – from maintaining muscles and bone health to the day-to-day workings of each and every one of the trillion cells in our body.

Proteins are quite possibly the most essential complex structure that exists on earth. Without proteins no life would be possible! Of course this can be said about a lot of things but with protein it is even more tangible. Without proteins, reproduction of species would be impossible and in short, life as we know it would not be. Precisely because the process by which our bodies transfer information from one “body” to another “new” body relies on the presence of proteins. The word protein derived from the Greek word “proteios” which translates to “first quality” or “first place” – a testament to the importance the scientists of old attributed to this molecular wunderkind.

What do Proteins do, really?

In order for our body to operate functionally, we need to ingest protein from other sources, so that these proteins can be broken down into amino acids and then used in the ‘assembly line’ to not only sustain us during the day but also to fuel the process of when our cells divide to make new cells.

They are the building blocks for hormones which help the different tissues of our body to communicate with each other so as to keep everything in balance. Enzymes, which catalyse (jump start) most reactions in the body are largely made up of proteins.

Our movement is regulated by proteins. The actions required to get muscles moving via contraction is instigated by two proteins myosin and actin. Haemoglobin, the molecule that stores and transports oxygen around the body in our red blood cells, is a protein. As is ferritin, a molecule in the liver that stores iron.

The antibodies of our immune system are made up of peptides (small fragments of proteins) and most of the communication (cell signalling) between immune cells relies on the presence of various receptors that sit on the surface of the cells, these receptors for the most part, are almost exclusively made up of proteins.

Confusing studies cast shadow on deriving protein from meat

Recently in February 2014, the results from two studies that analysed animal-based protein diets reached mainstream media exposure. The researchers concluded that high levels of dietary animal protein in people aged 50-65 was linked to an increased risk of diabetes, cancer and seemingly doubled the risk of mortality over an 18 year period. These results were obtained from 2 studies in nearly 7000 people, that were conducted by academic researchers in Italy, the US and Australia.

One of the professors, Prof. Valter Longo, from the US study was recorded as saying:

“We studied simple organisms, mice and humans, and provide convincing evidence that a high- protein diet – particularly if the proteins are derived from animals – is nearly as bad as smoking for your health.”

This simple quote was taken out of context and made news headlines around the world.

What was a little misleading in the study was that the statistics of eating high protein diets flipped once the subjects were over the age of 65. Here it was shown that a diet high in protein actually lowered the risk of death from any cause by nearly 30%!

The most important finding from the studies that was largely under-reported by mainstream media, was that all of the conclusions drawn, fell short when the protein was derived from plant sources. In other words, if you derive your dietary protein from plants, none of these findings were applicable.

Getting protein from plant sources

Plant-based sources with the highest protein content are beans, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, quinoa, nuts (most notably peanuts and almonds), peas and lentils. The breakdown of per 100 gram serving is as follows: beans will yield approximately 22 g of protein, sunflower seeds 21 g, nuts (peanuts 26 g, followed closely by almonds 21 g),  quinoa 14 g, spinach 2.9 g, broccoli 2.8 g, asparagus 2.2 g and cauliflower 1.9 g per 100 grams.

Not regarding the previous study, it is generally recommended by nutritionists that eating less meat is probably a healthy option. On top of this, focusing on obtaining protein from plant-sources has the other bonus that you get all the other goodness from plants including essential minerals and vitamins not necessarily obtained by diets consisting of largely meat.

Protein: How much do we need?

The overall recommended daily intake of protein for a healthy adult is roughly 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. On average this translates to about 46 grams per day for women and about 56 grams for men every day. Yet, protein requirements are complicated because the amount our bodies need, change with age, state of health and level of activity.

Broadly speaking young babies require about 10 grams of protein a day. When a woman is pregnant and lactating the amount of protein increases to around 70 grams.

Another option of getting protein into your diet over and above consuming meat and certain vegetables is by taking protein supplements. Protein supplements are often more convenient than cooking and preparing meat, fish, dairy or vegetarian dishes – especially if a busy lifestyle is preventing you from cooking elaborate meals.

The benefits of protein supplements, validated

A study in 130 people looked at those who exercised a lot and supplemented their diet with protein supplements. Compared to those who didn’t supplement, these people had fewer infections, less muscle soreness, and fewer cases of heat exhaustion. The overall conclusion was that protein supplementation may not only increase regular muscle protein deposition but that also that it has a significant potential to positively impact overall health, muscle soreness, and tissue hydration after exercise.

Though more research is required, it has been suggested that some protein shakes may actually help with weight management. For more information about this, please check out our blog about protein powder for weight management.

A popular protein supplement is whey powder. Whey protein is derived from milk. Many people prefer whey-derived supplements over other protein supplements due to the taste. But this doesn’t truly matter as protein powders are often taken as shakes, where they get mixed with fruits (berries) and  other yummy ingredients (think: vanilla powder or cinnamon).

In several animal models it was shown that supplementing the young with whey protein showed positive effects on the development of their immune systems.

In conclusion, including proteins in our diet is very important to maintain our body’s optimum balance. Whatever form of protein you prefer to eat is obviously your choice, but one thing’s for certain, we cannot ignore these amazing compounds, for they are the very essence of life itself!

Our, “first quality”, remember? And yes, proteins help us smile too.

by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology

article photo © Alpay Erdem, Turkey, Winner, Smile, Open Competition, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards


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