Your entire body is composed of cells and every single cell contains protein. It’s no wonder this nutrient is so essential to your body.
Protein supports the function of many major body systems, so it’s a good thing that the body is capable of making protein itself – with a little additional help from the foods we eat.
What’s So Great About Protein?
You need protein in order to grow and repair muscles, bones, skin, ligaments, tendons, eyes, hair and other important body tissues. Protein contains many of the enzymes and hormones necessary for metabolism and digestion.
Protein strengthens your immune system by helping your body to create antibodies whose job is to defend against disease. Protein helps you to heal faster when injured by helping your blood to clot and using collagen to repair cells. Protein even supplies energy where other nutrients fail.
Why Eat Protein If the Body Makes Its Own?
Protein is made up of 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are essential (meaning they can only be obtained from eating certain foods). This means that unless you are eating protein-rich foods, you are missing 9 key elements that make protein function at an optimal level in your body.
How Can You Get More Protein?
The fastest way to get the remaining essential amino acids and sufficient protein is to eat meat (preferably lean meats to keep fat content at a minimum) and dairy products. Meat and dairy contain the most protein, followed by legumes (like beans, nuts and peas), which do not have all of the essential amino acids.
In order to get sufficient protein when eating legumes and other foods that are lacking in some of the essential amino acids is to eat them in combination with other foods that make protein complete. For example, eating legumes with grains, nuts or vegetables will supply complete protein.
You likely already eat food combinations like these as part of your culture without realizing the balance of nutrients there that make them a great pair. Mexicans may pair corn with beans, while Indians may pair rice and peas. Americans eat peanut butter sandwiches and get the same effect of complete protein.
You may find it helpful to know that your body is better able to digest protein that comes from animal sources than any other, followed by legumes, then grains and finally other plant sources. So don’t be afraid of a little meat in your diet to get all the protein you need. Just be sure to limit how much meat you consume daily, and again go for leaner cuts.
It is recommended by nutrition experts that you consume about 50 grams of protein per day, though the average American consumes twice that amount. Too much protein – without the balance of vegetables, fruits and whole grain – can actually increase one’s risk for heart disease, bone loss and kidney and artery damage (the very things protein is designed to prevent).