We all need protein to live and be healthy. These large molecules are not only a source of muscle mass and bulkier bodies, but also an essential component of good health. At cell level, proteins help bind molecules together, build new muscle fiber and repair damaged muscles, take part in critical enzymatic reactions in the body, build bone, cartilage and tendons, among other vital functions.
While they may appear insignificant, these functions contribute to further, more noticeable benefits such as improved immune function, higher energy levels, more stable blood sugar levels following meals, weight loss, satiety, better concentration, memory and learning abilities, better mood, stronger bones and reduced risk of osteoporosis, even cardiovascular disease and diabetes-related health complications. This is what proteins do for us.
A moderate, yet generous protein intake of about 25% to 35% of our daily calorie requirements is enough to ensure we enjoy all of these health benefits. Eating too little or too much protein may prove unhealthy because it disrupts a fragile nutritional balance, hence the need for moderation. It is just as important to eat different kinds of proteins and alternate between animal and plant protein for best results and better health. The recommended daily intake of protein for an average person on a 2000 kcal diet is 50 g of protein, best provided from both animal and plant food sources.
What is the role of protein in our body? Here are some of the most incredible roles proteins play at cellular level:
1) Build muscle fiber and repair muscle tissue.
2) Help build bone matrices (intercellular bone tissue from which bones develop).
3) Build connective tissue such as cartilage, fat tissue and tendons.
4) Contribute to bone marrow and blood formation.
5) Build connective tissue in the lymph nodes, spleen, kidneys, etc.
6) Accelerate vital chemical reactions in the cell.
7) Are responsible for cell signaling (such as neurotransmission).
8) Bind together other molecules such as antibodies and antigens, which is an essential part of the immune function.
Why is it important to eat a protein-rich meal after working out? Most types of physical exercise, especially weight lifting, put a great deal of strain on our ligaments, tendons and muscles in particular. This can lead to muscle damage which can only be repaired if we give our body plenty of amino acids from protein-rich foods to use as raw material for repair. Eating enough protein can also lead to faster recovery from muscle aches.
These functions proteins fulfill may go unnoticed by many of us, but generate ample responses in our body and engender significantly more visible health effects. Here are 8 wonderful health benefits of protein:
1) Builds muscle mass and repairs injured muscle. If we don’t get enough protein, our body will start to break down muscle fibers to get its energy. This weakens muscle and atrophy may occur over time. Similarly, if we want to bulk up on muscle, it is important to increase our protein intake so that our body gets plenty of amino acids to help build muscle mass.
2) Regulates blood sugar. You may have noticed that when we eat carbohydrates such as breads or pasta we feel great and energized for a little while, but lose most of our energy soon after. This is partly because carbohydrate-rich foods generate an unexpected spike in our blood sugar levels, which then drop significantly, hence symptoms such as drowsiness, sluggishness or low energy levels. Proteins take longer to digest and do not alter blood sugar levels very much, which allows us to enjoy stable blood glucose over the course of a few hours following a meal.
3) Promotes weight loss and reduced hunger sensation. Each day we have to maintain a healthy balance between our protein, carbohydrates and fats intake. If you stop to think about it, we generally have a greater tolerance for carbohydrate-rich foods (baked sweets, cakes, breads) and thus end up eating more of these types of foods in one sitting. But we often display more control when it comes to protein-rich foods. For instance, we don’t usually feel like getting full on hard cheeses, milk, lean chicken meat or beans and only eat moderate portions.
While it may seem like a no-brainer, this is actually a great tool for weight loss and one of the reasons so many people nowadays manage to lose quite a lot of weight by simply reducing their carbohydrate intake and increasing their protein intake. Moreover, our body takes more time to digest proteins which contributes to a longer feeling of fullness. This is also why some people report either not feeling fully satiated if they do not eat sufficient amounts of protein-rich food in one meal or report experiencing hunger soon after a low-protein meal. In addition to this, plant protein sources are also rich in dietary fiber which reduces the intestinal absorption of fats, contributing further to weight loss and hunger supression.
4) Improves brain function. Proteins are made up from chains of amino acids. Amino acids are involved a bewildering variety of processes, including critical enzymatic reactions, cell signaling via neurotransmission as well as hormone production. Each of these elements greatly impacts the nervous system in its entirety, positively altering memory, learning, concentration and mood, of course, when there is a sufficient protein intake. Surprisingly, most protein-rich foods also contain generous amounts of B vitamins and B vitamins are great at supporting brain activity.
5) Beneficial effects on sleep, mood and disposition. In part, one of the reasons why we may start to experience drowsiness, low energy levels or irritability and nervousness is the lack of sufficient protein in our diets. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Amino acids fulfill important functions at the level of the nervous system, notably neurotranmission, but also hormone synthesis which have a great impact on our state of mind and energy levels.
Glutamine is an amino acid that supplies energy to cells and, at the same time, acts as a natural neurotransmitter inhibitor, suppressing the nervous system up to a certain extent, which results in feelings of calm and peace, makes it easy for one to fall asleep, improves concentration and stress coping mechanisms. Carnitine improves mood and cognition as well as memory, among other functions. Moreover, by their very nature, proteins help promote stable blood sugar levels which, in turn, prevents irritability, anxiety and all sorts of negative feelings and mood changes.
6) Contributes to bone health and reduced osteoporosis risks. It may come as a surprise to find out that proteins promote strong, healthy bones, but it’s true. Insulin is a hormone, protein and anabolic agent (or growth promoting agent) involved a great variety of processes, one of which is bone formation. Not only does insulin promote bone formation, but also contributes to strenghtening bones by increasing bone mass. Type 1 diabetes sufferers, who also battle insulin deficiency and associated problems, also frequently develop osteoporosis. Nevertheless, a strong, healthy bone frame also requires generous amounts of calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin C to stay that way.
7) Improved immunity. One of the main roles of protein in the body is molecule binding, a function with a direct impact on the immune function. Proteins allow for antibodies to bind to antigens (any type of foreign molecule that generates an immune response from our body). This allows for antigens to be recognized and destroyed by our immune system, thus preventing potential infection or disease.
8) Faster tissue healing. By building and repairing tissue in general (muscle, bone, tendons, cartilage and all sorts of connective tissue), proteins basically promote healing. Eating enough protein contributes to faster healing of tissue, muscle, even tendons, cartilage and bone, which may prove a useful tool in reducing recovery time following specific injuries, provided intake is not excessive.
Side effects and health risks. Side effects usually come from a high calorie intake, not necessarily a high protein intake. Our body needs all three essential macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but it is up to us to balance our intake according to our nutritional needs.
Eating mostly protein is not balanced eating and can lead to ill health. Eating large amounts of animal protein in particular (without alternating with plant protein) is not very smart either. Animal protein sources are acidic in nature and thus may negatively alter our blood pH (which should be basic) if consumed in large amounts and increase inflammation levels in the body, which puts us at risk for chronic disease over time.