Healthy Facts About Protein
Like the structural steel of buildings, proteins provide the framework for every cell of the body. Just as workers at a construction site need a steady supply of building materials, tissues undergoing repair and those that are growing need a steady supply of protein to build and rebuild organs, muscles, antibodies, hormones and enzymes – every kind of cell in the body. At eight months or eighty years, bodies need protein. Protein is a reasonably worry-free food. Unlike with fat or sugar, it’s nearly impossible to overdose on proteins, especially in children’s diets. And for most Americans, getting enough protein is not a problem. Also, unlike with fats and carbs, there’s no such thing as an unhealthy protein. Learn about this essential building block for your body with these facts about protein.
Like the first two members of the nutritional Big Three, fats and carbohydrates, proteins have their own language. Here are some facts about protein you should know.
- Protein comes from the Greek word protos, meaning “first.” These nutrients are the basic elements of living cells, of first importance. Like carbohydrates and fats, proteins contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, but they contain one more element that sets them apart from the other two – nitrogen.
- Amino acids are the molecules that make up the proteins. There are twenty different amino acids in the human body, but there are many possible combinations of these amino acids. Think of it this way: Amino acids are like letters, and proteins are like words. There are many ways to put letters together to make words, and each word has a different function, a different place in a sentence. The protein you eat is broken down into individual amino acids in the digestive system, and then different cells rake the ones they need and recombine these amino acids into the proteins that make up your body. Picture a Scrabble board full of words. Then imagine the tiles getting dumped, mixed up, and reassembled into new words.
- Essential and nonessential describe the two kinds of amino acids. Of the twenty amino acids in the human protein “alphabet,” eleven are nonessential amino acids, meaning your body can make them; you don’t have to eat them. Nine are essential amino acids, meaning your body can’t make them, so it’s essential that you get them from foods.
Complete and Incomplete Proteins
Getting the right kinds of protein is similar to shopping for clothes. Some clothing comes in complete sets. The jacket is sold with the skirt or pants, and together they make a complete outfit. Other clothing you mix and match: jeans from one rack, a shirt from another, maybe a sweater from a different store across town. One of the interesting facts about proteins is that they also come in complete sets or as incomplete parts that work together. A complete protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids; a protein missing one or more of these is an incomplete protein. Foods that come from animal sources contain complete proteins, since animal tissues have a composition similar to our own. Both grains and legumes contain significant amounts of protein but these proteins do not contain all of the essential amino acids. Except for soybeans, quinoa, hemp and chia seeds, plant proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids so they are called “incomplete proteins.”
Another way to evaluate the facts about protein is to consider the biological value (BV) of a protein, meaning not only how rich it is in essential amino acids but also how well it can be digested by the intestines. Some basic facts about protein are that animal proteins are around 95 percent digestible, and plant proteins range between 80 and 90 percent digestible.
Complementing and Combining Proteins
While it may seem that animal proteins are better nutritionally, the differences in quality between animal and plant proteins are of more theoretical interest than practical significance. One of the misunderstood facts about protein is that people can thrive just as well on plant proteins. (Plant-protein eaters may even be healthier, since they avoid the extra fat that comes with animal protein.) One plant food can supply the amino acids missing in another. Proteins from different kinds of plants complement each other and, in fact, many common and traditional foods are based on complementary proteins.
One of the mistaken facts about protein that people get misled into is thinking that you must eat meat twice a day or even once a day to get the protein you need. Even though plant proteins are not complete proteins, you can make up for what any one food lacks by eating a wide variety of plant and animal foods. A hefty salad with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a topping of sunflower seeds is a healthy protein lunch.
One of the well known facts about protein is that it is delicious. Try these yummy and healthy combinations of complementary proteins.
Whole Grains + Legumes
- Whole wheat bread + peanut butter
- Brown rice + beans
- Whole grain crackers + lentil soup
- Whole wheat pita + hummus
One of the great facts about protein is that plant proteins can also be combined with animal proteins to make complete proteins, but the animal proteins don’t have to come from meat. There are many possible combinations of grains and legumes with dairy products:
Whole Grains + Dairy Products
- Cereal + milk
- Pizza + cheese
- Granola + yogurt
- Pasta + cheese
Vegetables + Dairy Products
- Broccoli + cheese sauce