Protein…The Essence of Existence!

Posted: June 25, 2012 in Amino Acids, Calories, Diet, Energy, human body, Lean Muscle Mass, Macronutrients, Nutrition & Fitness, Nutrition Counseling
English: typical structure of an α-amino acid

English: typical structure of an α-amino acid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Protein:
Next to water protein is the most plentiful substance in the human body.  Protein is vitally important to the maintenance of good (optimal) health.  Additionally it’s critical to the growth and development of all body tissues.  It is the major source of building materials for muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails, and internal organs (i.e. heart, brain, lungs).  Protein is need for the formation of hormones, which control a variety of body functions such as growth, sexual development and metabolic rate.  It also acts to prevent blood and tissues from becoming either too acidic or too alkaline.  Protein also helps regulate the body’s water balance.  Enzymes and antibodies are formed from proteins as well, enzymes are substances necessary for basic life functions.  Antibodies help to fight foreign substances in the body.  Proteins plays an integral role in the formation of milk during lactation and in the clotting process of blood.

Protein as Energy:
Protein may also be used as a source of heat (via calories) and energy, as each contains four calories per gram.  However, this energy is spared when sufficient fats and carbohydrates are present in the diet.  Unlike carbohydrates and fat, the body does not have the ability to store protein.  Glucose is stored as glycogen and fats are reserved in adipose tissue, whereas protein is available only through the working molecular and structural components of endogenous body tissues.  When the need arises, the body dismantles it’s tissue proteins and utilizes them for energy.  The tissues of the liver are the first to be broken down, followed by the muscles tissues and then other organs.  Energy deficiency (i.e. chronic or severe dieting and starvation) is therefore always accompanied by the wasting of lean body tissue.
Excess protein that is not utilized as an energy source or for building tissue can be converted into fatty acids by the liver, then stored in adipose tissue.  Excess protein may also be partitioned and excreted through the kidneys in the form or urea.  When protein is used for immediate or stored energy, which occurs when protein intake exceeds recommended amounts (or needed amounts, in the case of trained individuals), the nitrogen portion of the molecule is removed.  As a result, calcium is released into the blood to buffer the acid residue left from the conversion of protein to energy.  Chronic high protein intake may lead to a calcium deficiency and may contribute to osteoporosis later in life.

Protein Digestion:
When protein (from chicken, beef, fish, eggs, etc.) is ingested, the body must alter it by breaking it down into smaller units known as amino acids.  This allows the body to prioritize where the amino acids are distributed to sustain life.  The human body must then rearrange the amino acids into the proper sequence in order to form the necessary protein.  For this reason, “designer” or engineered proteins have little value over other complete proteins.  In some cases, you could consume less of this type of protein to meet your requirements but the structure of the protein before it is eaten has little, if any, significance to well-fed, healthy individuals.

Complete vs Incomplete Proteins:
Foods containing protein may or may not provide all of the essential amino acids.  When a food contains all of the essential amino acids it is termed a “complete protein.”  Foods that are extremely low in, or lack any one of the essential amino acids are deemed “incomplete proteins.”  Foods that are derived from animal sources (i.e. chicken, beef, fish, eggs, etc.) naturally contain all of the essential amino acids and are therefore referred to as “Complete Proteins.”  Conversely, fruits and vegetables, grains, seeds, as well as legumes (nuts, beans) generally do not have all of the essential amino acids and are referred to as “Incomplete Proteins.”

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