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What Is Protein? - How Does It Help?

Protein, we’ve all heard the term, we eat it every day, it comes in shakes, bars, bliss balls and powder, but do we know what this little compound actually is?

With new protein products entering the market daily, it’s important to know what you’re buying and how to use it in a way that makes sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

An Essential Macro nutrient

Protein is one of the three macro nutrients (big nutrients), alongside carbohydrates and fat. It is located within every cell and tissue of the human body and in case that isn’t enough, we store it in our muscles too. In fact, after water, protein is the most abundant compound in the human body (1). Why? Because it’s used for almost everything our body does – peculiar thought right?

Of all the molecules known, protein has been called out for being by far the most structurally confusing (2), however, this is what allows it to carry out such a huge range of functions. Protein provides a source of energy or fuel and is used by our bodies every day to grow and repair tissues, build muscles, create hormones and enzymes, provide structural and immune system support, alongside a heap of other important functions (1). There are all sorts of types of proteins in our bodies, each with its own job to keep our bodies functioning well.

Proteins are found in a wide range of foods and supplements and are made up of little building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in total. our bodiy can make eleven, the rest we must get from out diet (1).

What Are Amino Acids?

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. All 20 amino acids are crucial for the breakdown of food to energy (1). How these amino acids are linked together will determine which protein is built and the  function of that protein.

Another way to help understand is to picture the amino acids in your body like letters of the alphabet. The letters can combine in hundreds of different ways to form different words that all mean different things. When your body needs a specific protein, it will combine the amino acids in a particular way to form a specific protein to carry out the required function. But where do Amino acids come from?

Essential Vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids

As previously mentioned, there are eleven amino acids which the body can make. The other nine must be provided through the diet, these are leucine, isoleucine, valine, phenylalanine, threonine, methionine, histidine, tryptophan and lysine.

When we eat a food that contains protein, say for example steak, the steak is broken down in your gut into these little amino acids. Then when your body needs to make a new protein, it will essentially grab all the amino acids it needs and assemble them in the required fashion.

What Is A Complete Protein?

A food containing all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities is called a complete protein (3) source.

All animal proteins – meat, dairy, eggs and fish – are complete proteins, as are soy and quinoa. Plant foods are more often than not incomplete protein sources, meaning they are missing several of the essential amino acids. Vegetarians - do not panic! This is no issue as eating complete proteins is not essential, you’ve just got to eat a little more tactically. Essential amino acids can be

consumed through a variety of different foods across all meals of the day. Cover yourself by combining different plant sources of protein at once to make sure you’re getting all the essentials.

What do our bodies use protein for? 

Perhaps a better question to ask might be what don’t our bodies use protein for? Protein is used by the body for a mind-boggling number of functions, whether it is for energy, structure, protection, enzyme creation or carrying the likes of oxygen and signals throughout the body.

Protein is needed in the body for growth and repair. It’s also part of the compounds that regulate the body such as enzymes, hormones & neurotransmitters.

Finally, protein is burned as fuel for energy.

Developing Lean Muscle

Proteins are often most recognised amongst fitness communities for their role in building muscles, however, that’s only scratching

the surface as far as protein functions are concerned. Proteins like myosin and actin will help the recovery, strengthening and adaptation of your current muscle fibres (4) to help you feel fitter, look toner, and get back in the gym faster without walking like a scarecrow post weights day. Despite what

some labels may say, increasing your protein will not lead you straight to a body-building physique. When combined with resistance training, they will help increase body mass and assist you to move at ease for longer.

Maintaining Healthy Bones, Hair, Nails and Skin

Structurally, one of the most important proteins of the human body is Collagen. Collagen provides the basic structure to strengthen bones (3) in the skeleton, and the nearby tissues and helps maintain skin, nails, and hair growth.

Improving Energy

Protein provides the same amount of energy value as carbohydrates. For every gram consumed, your body will receive 4 calories (cal) of energy or 17 kilojoules (kJ).

Background Business

Background business refers to the thousands of daily processes your body goes about every day without you even knowing. Proteins play a massive role. Those located in the blood, hormones, and cell membranes and receptors are essential for communication and transport of messages and molecules throughout the body (1). Haemoglobin, arguably one of the most important proteins, is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Proteins are involved in blood clotting, maintaining a liveable pH balance, synthesizing enzymes, creating immune responses, generating energy and excreting waste (4)

Protein is absolutely essential for muscle activity, repair and recovery. Without it, our bodies risk falling out of shape and into utter fatigue.

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 1. Mann J, Truswell S, Essentials of Human Nu- trition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporat- ed; 2014. Available from q=1.+Mann+J,+Truswell+S,+editors.+Essentials+of+Hu- man+Nutrition.+Oxford:+Oxford+University+Press,+Incorpo- rated%3B+2014.&ots=cr5rB9CTu-&sig=tf1kZB5NB6Vjsro_eEb- NHDUBOTA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

2. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. The Shape and Structure of Proteins. Available from: https://www.ncbi.

3. Shang N, Chaplot S, Wu J. 12 - Food proteins for health and nutrition. In: Yada RY, Proteins in Food Pro- cessing (Second Edition): Woodhead Publishing; 2018.301-36. Available from books?hl=en&lr=&id=boeZDgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&d- q=Yada+RY,+editor.+Proteins+in+Food+Processing+(Sec- ond+Edition)&ots=gKCMAYMVbz&sig=uFJunY051n7MYjJ- S6tQUnQjuqVw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

4. Henley EC, Taylor JRN, Obukosia SD. Chapter 2 - The Impor- tance of Dietary Protein in Human Health: Combating Protein Deficiency in Sub-Saharan Africa through Transgenic Bioforti- fied Sorghum. In: Taylor SL, editor. Advances in Food and Nu- trition 60: Academic Press; 2010. p. 21-52. Available from g=PA21&dq=Chapter+2+-+The+Importance+of+Dietary+Pro- tein+in+Human+Health:+Combating+Protein+Deficien- cy+in+Sub-Saharan+Africa+through+Transgenic+Bioforti- fied+Sorghum&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjr6fC8xuvkAhUIX- SsKHYPhC7IQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=Chapter%202%20-%20The%20Importance%20of%20Dietary%20Protein%20 in%20Human%20Health%3A%20Combating%20Protein%20 Deficiency%20in%20Sub-Saharan%20Africa%20through%20 Transgenic%20Biofortified%20Sorghum&f=false

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