All About Protein

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chicken-cookedProtein – From the Greek, proteios, meaning primary or of prime importance. In terms of nutrition, it is one of three macronutrients, the other two being fats and carbohydrates. We often think of protein solely as a nutrient necessary for muscle repair and growth, but it also supports vital functions like blood clotting, fluid balance, the production of enzymes and hormones, vision and cell repair. It is in every cell of your body.

Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, and amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Amino acids contain carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen molecules joined or linked together in polypeptide chains. Amino acids are divided into two groups, essential and nonessential. The 11 nonessential aminos can be synthesized by your body from other nutrients and proteins while the 9 essential amino acids cannot be synthesized and must be consumed.

Protein: Incomplete vs. Complete

Proteins are further divided by their amino acid makeup. It is considered complete if it contains all of the essential proteins. It is considered incomplete if the amino content does not provide all of the essential aminos to meet our dietary needs.

Animal proteins are complete, meat, milk, eggs poultry, seafood and dairy products contain the necessary aminos, while plant sources of protein are incomplete. Example of plant proteins include beans, peas, soy, some grains, corn, tree nuts, many dark green leafy vegetables and legumes like peanuts. This is why protein combining is vital to a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.

Protein combining is an approach to diet that helps the vegan or vegetarian consume the levels of all amino acids needed for optimal health. Basically, you are combining incomplete proteins in order to create a meal that is complete, containing essential aminos from a variety of sources.

The most basic example of protein combining is rice and beans, a staple in Southern cooking, combining rice and beans or beans and cornbread were simple and affordable ways to replace meat when none was available or affordable. Another simple example, peanut butter on whole grain toast or rice cakes. Proteins that work together are said to be complementary proteins.

A word about balance. Meals should always include a balanced combination of the three macronutrients, lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fatty acids. While your body CAN burn it as a fuel source, it is not a desired state.

Your body will first burn any available carbs for fuel and energy, once depleted your body will burn free fats and eventually stored body fat. But once these two are gone, or if only protein is available your body will burn protein, this results in a lack of available protein for muscle repair and maintenance. In extreme cases, your body will “eat” muscle to support metabolism, a destructive state known as catabolism.

To support optimal health, balance your meals and snacks, combine your proteins with complex carbs and fatty acids to provide energy to digest your meal and allow the protein to build strong muscles (and blood, hormones and cells).

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