Proteins are often referred to as the building blocks of the body. This is because our muscles are made up of tiny strands of protein called amino acids, which give the body its basic shape and support. Since we are constantly breaking down these strands, they must be continually replaced. Protein's other vital roles include maintaining healthy skin, hair and nails; producing hormones; aiding in sexual development; and sustaining healthy levels of red blood cells (which carry oxygen through the body). Although it is the second most plentiful substance in the body, after water, it is also the one energy nutrient we need the least of. As with fat, it's the quality of the protein we eat that determines our health. Most people eat enough calories per day to satisfy the body’s daily requirements. In fact we will usually take in more than we actually need and this is converted to fat for storage.
There are 20 different amino acids in the body’s protein. The body is able to manufacture some of these itself, but there are eight essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and must be consumed. A deficiency of even one of these eight can lead to problems with the production of protein structures.
Foods that are rich in protein do not always contain all the essential amino acids. If the food contains all eight, it is termed complete; foods that are low in one or more are termed incomplete. Most meats and dairy products are complete protein foods, while most vegetables and fruits are incomplete. Ideally we should eat a mixture of animal and vegetable sources to ensure that we are getting the full complement.
It is possible to get all the required amino acids from fruits and vegetables, but foods must be carefully selected. Vegetarians should take care to include beans or peas in at least two of their meals each day. They should also combine incomplete proteins such as grains (cereals, pasta and breads) with milk or milk products (such as cheese and yogurt). Grains can be combined with legumes to achieve the same effect, and seeds can also be a good source of protein if combined with legumes. The proteins that can be obtained from vegetable sources are not as easily absorbed as those from meat sources. Vitamin C can aid this process, so vegetarians should eat or drink foods rich in this vitamin with their meals. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges and orange juice.
High quality sources of protein are essential to maintain a healthy body and mind. The body can produce most of the amino acids it needs to build muscle and maintain other functions however the essential amino acids must be obtained from food. The ideal source is meat and dairy products however carefully selection of other sources can provide the body with what it needs. If you are experiencing muscle wasting, fatigue, a change in skin or hair texture, weakness and poor immune response you might want to examine your protein intake. Remember the goal of good nutrition is to maintain a healthy body so you can function at the highest level possible.
I hope this article has provided you with information that will help you make wise choices, so you may:
Live healthy, live well and live long!
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