Updated: Jul 19, 2020
As I was preparing a presentation on fitness and nutrition, I realized that it may be interesting to write a quick overview on protein. Regardless of our food preferences and beliefs, we all need this molecule in order to build and maintain different body structures (such as muscles), support our immune system and perform many other functions.
But what is protein?
In short, it is a complex molecule that consists of 21 smaller unique “blocks”, called amino acids. Often, we think of a protein as one single thing, but the reality is that all these amino acids have to first come together, attach to each other and then fold into a myriad of different shapes and forms to construct new proteins.
This works because all 21 amino acids are unique. They differ in sizes, shapes, chemical properties and of course, have their own names. That’s why just by placing them in different orders, our body can form many different types of proteins for various purposes.
What’s the big deal?
As you may know, after we eat food that contains protein, our body breaks each protein back to its individual amino acids, thus creating an internal “pool” of small building blocks. Then it uses the “pool” to reassemble the blocks into whatever proteins are needed. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But there are two tricks to this process. One is that proteins are not stored in our body, meaning we need to have all our amino acids on a regular basis. Two is that out of 21 amino acids, our body can actually generate 12 (regardless if we ate them or not); however, the remaining 9, called “essential”, need to come from foods.
Although the debate is ongoing and heated about the ability of animal-based foods vs. plant-based foods to provide all these amino acids, I think we can all agree that the answer lies in “variety”. And that means that if we eat different healthy wholesome foods daily, the chances of getting all our “building blocks” are good, regardless of the food preferences. Dietitians also say athletes can perform well regardless if they eat meat, are vegetarians or even choose veganism, as long as they do careful meal planning, practicing variety, balance and mindful eating.
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