What is protein and how do you get it into your body?
LIVING NATURALLY with Olwen Anderson
"YOU need to eat more protein" your practitioner says.
"Protein-rich" screams the product label. Ah, yes, yes, you respond. Protein is good. But why? And what's the best source?
Protein is a macronutrient; one of the main components of food that we need (the other macronutrients are fats and carbohydrates). When you think protein, think 'building block'.
Protein is what your body uses to build new cells, to create thinking neurotransmitters, plus whatever immune cells your body needs right now. It's made up of many 'amino acid' molecules. Some foods contain all of the amino acids, some only some of them.
Your stomach has a big job ahead of it when you eat protein: those molecules are tough to break down into amino acids so your stomach has to use strong acids, enzymes, as well as physical force. But once the job is done your body is ready to re-shape those amino acids into new cells, enzymes, neurotransmitters, whatever needs to be built.
With enough protein in your diet there's no shortage of amino acid building blocks, so maintenance and growth of your body continues. If there just isn't enough protein available, then growth slows or stops. Westerners are renowned for being tall, largely because our diets are so high in protein.
But what happens if you choose to eat a diet with less protein than your body needs?
Then your mood may be affected. Wounds might not heal so readily. Even your immune resilience can suffer. Everyone is different, so some people do better on higher or lower protein diets. It's something you tend to work out through trial and error.
Now that I've convinced you how useful this protein is, I bet you want to know where you can get it: The richest sources are animal foods: fish and meat, which are about 20% protein (for example a 100g steak provides 20g of protein).
An egg provides about 6g protein. Nuts and seeds also provide close to 20% protein, and legume protein contents vary.
What about dairy foods? Well, that depends on which packet you lift from the fridge. Full cream milk is about 4% protein, ricotta 11%, yoghurt 6%, cheddar cheese 26%.
In short, high protein foods contain about 20% protein and are what you want to focus on.
Best to avoid the protein supplements, as eating real food provides vitamins and minerals as well. You need them too.
Olwen Anderson is a naturopath and counsellor. www.olwenanderson.com.au