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Why do we need to eat protein?

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

I find I spend a lot of time explaining to clients about the importance of eating protein with every meal. But why is protein so important?

Proteins are essential for building and repairing muscle, but there is so much more to protein. Every cell in our bodies contain protein and all of our enzymes are proteins - without proteins we can't function.

Proteins are made up of amino acids - these building-blocks can be used by our bodies to make new amino acids, or new proteins. We don't store protein, so we need to eat it regularly to ensure we have enough amino acids to be healthy. It is possible to eat too much protein, excess is broken down and stored as fat, but for many people the issue is not getting enough, or not getting enough variety of proteins.

Some amino acids are classified as 'essential' - these are the ones that we cannot make in our

bodies, so we need to get them through our food. There are 9 essential amino acids - histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. In addition there are some amino acids that are 'conditionally essential' - this means that at times you need to have them in your diet, for example if you are fighting a serious disease, or when you are pregnant.

Meat, fish and diary products are good sources of protein. Vegetarians and vegans need to take more care to ensure they get all the protein they need. But whatever your diet it is important to eat protein with every meal. Breakfast can be the most challenging meal for protein, but eggs, scrambled tofu and smoke fish make good breakfasts, as do nuts and seeds added to fruit and yoghurt.

Vegetarian sources of protein include pulses, peas, beans and lentils, soy, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, nuts and seeds. Sprouting pulses is a great way to add extra protein to salads.

What do amino acids do?

  1. Phenylalanine is essential for the formation of the neurotransmitters tyrosine, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. When you are stressed and producing more adrenaline your requirements for phenylalanine are increased.

  2. Valine helps stimulate muscle growth and repair and is needed for energy production.

  3. Threonine is a major component of structural proteins such as collagen and elastin, which are important components of your skin and connective tissue.

  4. Tryptophan is used to make serotonin the neurotransmitter that regulates your appetite, sleep, and mood. Good sources of tryptophan include dairy foods, eggs, nuts and seeds, especially almonds, oats and bananas. - and dark chocolate. So a milky chocolate drink at bedtime might actually help you sleep.

  5. Methionine plays an important role in metabolism and detoxification. It’s also necessary for the absorption of zinc and selenium, minerals that are vital to your health and essential for your immune system.

  6. Leucine is essential for protein synthesis and muscle repair. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, and stimulates wound healing.

  7. Isoleucine is important for immune function, haemoglobin production, and energy regulation.

  8. Lysine has many functions, including protein synthesis, calcium absorption, production of hormones and enzymes, and immune function. People who suffer with cold sores find taking Lysine can be very helpful.

  9. Histidine is used to create histamine, a neurotransmitter that is vital for the immune response, digestion, sexual function, and sleep-wake cycles.

  10. Arginine supports nitric oxide production, so is essential for cardio vascular health and it may be required for erectile function.

  11. Carnitine is often used as a supplement as it improves muscle strength and exercise tolerance, but it also reduces cholesterol levels.

  12. Glutamine is associated with intestinal health and immune health. Glutamine is so important that is we don't have enough our bodies will break down muscle tissue to release it.

  13. Taurine is the most abundant amino acid in the heart and is essential for health blood pressure and heart rhythm. It can also be used as a supplement to to improve exercise performance and is currently being researched for its ability to improve neurological disorders.

  14. Theanine is the calming component of tea - and is thought to be responsible for that 'nice cup of tea' feeling. It helps with prolonged stress, improves mood and can improve concentration and learning.

So, whatever your diet, don't forget the protein. Make sure you include protein with your meals 3 times a day, and mix it up - don't eat the same protein source every time, the more variety the better, and remember that 'nice cup of tea' feeling.

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