What Is Protein?
One of the three macronutrients your body needs to function properly (along with fats and carbohydrates), proteins are primarily important for tissue growth and repair, but also necessary for digestion, metabolism, and the production of antibodies to fight infection. Comprising 10% of your brain and 20% of your heart, liver, and skeletal muscles, protein is obviously key to maintaining a strong, healthy body. What you may not realize, however, is how important it is for a healthy mind.
When you digest protein, it's broken down into its component amino acids, which are then reassembled into 50,000 different forms your body can use for things like hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. Not only do these amino acids form the building blocks of your brain's neural network and have significant impact on your mood and brain function. Specifically, the protein neurexin, is responsible for directing new nerve cells to their correct locations in the brain where they form their initial connections.
Complete vs Incomplete Protein Sources
Your body needs 22 different types of amino acids to function properly. Adults can produce 13 of those within the body (known as non-essential amino acids), but the other 9 must be obtained from food (known as essential amino acids). It's these essential amino acids that derive the classification of protein as either complete or incomplete. It's critical that we understand the difference between the 2.
Complete proteins are those that contain all essential amino acids in sufficient quantity - these are typically animal-based proteins, but a few plant sources are also considered complete. A few examples are (* plant based)
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, whey)
- Hemp and chia seed* per 100 g, Protein 20 g
- Spirulina* per 100 g, Protein 57 g
Incomplete Protein Sources
Incomplete proteins are those that don't contain all 9 essential amino acids, or don't have sufficient quantities of them to meet the body's needs, and must be supplemented with other proteins. These include:
- Nuts & seeds
Just because they are incomplete doesn't make them inferior, though, they just need to be combined to provide the right balance of essential aminos. Proteins that, in combination, make a complete amino acid profile are known as complementary proteins. Here are a few tasty examples:
- Rice and beans
- Spinach salad with almonds
- Hummus and whole-grain pitas
Complementary proteins don't necessarily need to be eaten together, but since your body doesn't store amino acids for later use in protein combining, they should be eaten throughout a day's meals.
So How Exactly Should You Eat Your Protein Sources and when?
As with so many things, the key to protein is balance. It is a vital and often-misunderstood part of our diets, but we need to remember that the quality and type of protein can be as important as how much we consume. Making sure you have a good combination of high-quality proteins in your diet is a good step towards a healthy body and mind.
It is critical that protein is eaten throughout the day in small meals at least 5-6 times per day. Being small amounts and combining all of the above makes eating protein a lot easier and possible to meet your daily macro nutrient requirements.
Whey protein is one of the two major groups of proteins found in milk. Only 20 percent of milk's protein is whey. The rest is casein, which is the protein that triggers most milk allergies. This is why whey protein would be a way for people with allergies to get dairy protein into their diets. Whey protein essentially helps your cells to grow, replace and repair themselves. The body naturally produces proteins on its own, however, other amino acids must come from dairy protein. Whey protein provides all nine amino acids and is easy to digest. Most whey protein is low-fat or fat-free, and the amount of protein you need varies based on body type and nutritional needs.
Pea protein is a natural plant-based protein that is derived from yellow peas, also known as split peas. This protein is highly soluble and easy to digest. This is a perfect protein for vegetarians and vegans who can't get their protein from animal products. It has the ability to supply the nine essential amino acids that cannot be naturally produced by the human body.
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