Protein

5 Sep

Normally I get to witter on in the introduction about how some diets suggest you don’t eat X, Y or Z and how silly that is. Not today though! We’re talking protein today and as far as I know protein is the only one of the major nutrients (i.e. carbs, fat, protein) which hasn’t had a diet industry hate campaign against it. So I’ll just shush and get on with telling you about the stuff…

What is protein?

Proteins are made up of molecules called amino acids, you can think of them as the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids and they can be linked up in different orders to make different proteins. Once we eat something with protein our bodies start to break down the protein into the amino acids because they’re what our bodies need. They can be split into three groups which you might have heard of (especially if you’re a vegetarian – more on that later); essential, non-essential and conditional amino acids.

You might be able to guess the main difference between essential and non-essential amino acids, the clue is in the name after all. The reason that the essential amino acids are essential is because they can’t be made in the body which means that it’s essential that you get them through the food you eat. Non-essential amino acids on the other hand can be made in the body and so it’s not necessary to get them through food. The other category, conditional, is a bit harder to guess. Conditional amino acids are ones that are usually made in the body (in other words, not usually essential) but are essential in certain circumstances, for example during illness.

What do proteins do in our bodies?

So, I just told you that the first thing our bodies do to the proteins we eat is break them down into amino acids. The body can then use these amino acids to build new proteins, and there’s a lot of protein in the human body. You’ve probably all heard that our bodies are mostly water (about 60%), but after water the next most abundant molecule in the body is protein. Protein is found in every cell of the body and plays an important role in maintaining the structure of the cells, which includes things like your organs, hair and skin but especially your muscles.

Because of protein’s role in your muscles it’s especially important to get enough if you keep active. Unlike carbohydrates and fat which both provide energy during exercise protein only provides a small amount of energy when carb and fat levels are low; protein’s main function is in the building and repair of muscle tissue.

What foods can I get protein from?

I mentioned vegetarianism earlier when I was talking about essential amino acids, the reason is that vegetarians have to take a teeny bit more care when it comes to getting all the essential amino acids than meat eaters. Meat contains all of the essential amino acids and so we call it a “complete protein”, dairy products and eggs are also complete, however vegetable sources of protein only contain some of the essential amino acids. Different foods contain different amino acids and so if you’re eating a vegetarian or vegan diet you should be combining different sources of protein to make sure you get all the essential amino acids. It’s not hard at all and you probably do it without thinking about it; beans on toast, peanut butter on toast, chickpea curry with rice are all combinations which make up complete proteins. You don’t even need to eat both foods at the same meal, for example oats for breakfast and lentils for lunch will do fine.

Non-vegetarian sources: Meat and fish.
Vegetarian sources: Eggs, dairy products, quorn.
Vegan sources: Grains such as oats, rice and wheat (including things like bread and pasta); pulses such as red kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils; nuts and seeds; tofu.

Disclaimer: Catherine is only a biology geek, not a nutritionist, so take everything she says with a grain of salt (as you would your chips!). And remember – life is too short to worry about whether you’re hitting the recommended targets of every nutrient, food should be fun, not something to worry over.

About the Writer: Catherine is a biology geek by day and cake baker by night. When she’s not in the kitchen you’ll be able to find her writing, tending to her tomato plant or curled up reading one of her many cookbooks.

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