What comes to mind when we hear the word ‘protein’? Is it all the misleading controversy surrounding the topic? Does meat, dairy and all other animal products come to mind or can we see even further into the fact that all protein is made up of a molecular chain of certain amino acids, including plant protein sources. Is it safe to say then, that what we truly need to be focusing on is receiving sufficient and quality amounts of amino acids in our diet whether from plant or animal sources? What do amino acids do for our bodies? What are the effects of having a lack of amino acids? Is our body able to absorb all of the amino acids present in most foods? What happens when a food has incomplete amino acids, can we still obtain the correct amount of protein we need? Is it true that certain amino acids are essential to our health- meaning that our body cannot manufacture them and needs to get them from outside sources? How many grams of protein do we need on a daily basis anyhow? This article will cover the basics of amino acids as they pertain to protein.
The word ‘amino acids’ dictates biological compounds that are composed of different key elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen- when you break down any protein substance, these are the elements it is made of. The online Wikipedia describes amino acids as follows: ‘In the form of proteins, amino acids comprise the second-largest component (water is the largest) of human muscles, cells and other tissues.’ It is said that about 500 amino acids are known (some involved in building protein and some not) but there are the primary ones we hear about such as the essential and the main non-essential ones. When an amino acid is defined as being essential, this means that the body needs this amino acid from an outside source such as food, since the body itself cannot manufacture it. The essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. The conditionally essential amino acids are: arginine, cysteine, glutamine, pyrrolysine, proline, selenocysteine, serine, and tyrosine. Conditionally essential refers to the fact that the body for most people, most of the time is able to make these amino acids itself, but sometimes under certain circumstances cannot- which is when these amino acids would then become essential. The non-essential amino acids consist of every other amino acid needed by the human body that can also be made by the body from other amino acids ingested. (1)
So why do we need all of these amino acids and what exactly do they do for us? The amino-acids study website states that amino acids are a component of many biological processes within the body. The studies concluded that ‘amino acids are effective against diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, heart attacks, fat metabolism disorders, erectile dysfunction, and a compromised immune system. They also aid anti-aging processes.’ The site further states that ‘amino acids play a major role in the detoxification of the body, the formation of neurotransmitters, energy metabolism and the synthesis of vital substances such as coenzyme A. The amino acid taurine acts as an antioxidant, whereas glutamine, cysteine, and glycine form glutathione: the body’s most potent antioxidant. (2)
Other amino acids play a role in other benefits including helping prostate disorders, bone metabolism- beneficial for osteoporosis, and positively stimulating the immune system such as in cases of cancer. Dr. Jurgen Reimann, one of the scientists whom attended the international symposium for applied amino acid research, summarizes the benefits of amino acids by stating that ‘all in all, amino acids have an enormous potential for use in the treatment and prevention of a wide range of illnesses, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to back this up’. To encapsulate what amino acids do for the body: ‘they are the basis of all life processes, as they are absolutely essential for every metabolic process. Among their most important tasks are the optimal transport and optimal storage of all nutrients (i.e. water, fat, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, and vitamins).’ (2)
With the valid reasons our bodies need amino acids, what would ingesting too much protein do to us? Just as too much or too little of anything is not good for the body, too much or little too protein is also not good. Too much unused protein, just as too much of any other food group, may lead to fat storage on the body. Also according to many sites pertaining to protein consumption- it is said that too much protein may place stress on organs such as the kidneys as well as leach certain minerals from the bones and possibly contribute to cancer. It should be pointed out, however, that most of the studies done in relation to protein and kidneys have been studied on individuals whom already have kidney problems, so don’t do justice for healthy individuals (5) When it comes to bone health, problems may arise if one is not consuming adequate vitamins and minerals to begin with as seen in the typical American diet. When it comes to cancer, there is the amino acid methionine (found in high amounts in meat) that is said to increase a hormone that prompts cell growth (including cancer cells) called IGF-1. Methionine restriction alone has been known to restrict this hormone and this is where intermittent fasting comes in handy to mimic the way our bodies have come to develop. It is said that sources of gelatin and making bone broth contain Lysine, the amino acid needed to balance out methionine. (4)
I have seen information pertaining to this topic that has shown that protein doesn’t tax our bones and kidneys the way we have previously thought and that as long as you are eating what constitutes as being healthy protein at the correct range that your body needs, as well as an overall good diet, intermittent fasting as well as focusing on foods that balance out methionine, and the correct vitamin/mineral supplementation, cancer shouldn’t be of concern. Just as for the patient who already has kidney problems may need to decrease their protein intake- if you are already a cancer patient, you may need to follow more specific protocol as outlined by a doctor who is a professional in the nutritional needs of such a disease.
The real concern for the common person comes when we have a lack of needed vitamins/minerals in the body, processed foods with all of the artificial sugars and processed sugars (known to feed cancer cells and bad bacteria/yeast in the body) table salt, soda pop, artificial additives, unnatural fats, and poor quality meat and dairy products that end up taxing our body more. Also, we cannot rely on every study and what they state since most of the time, the foods being studied, are not the healthiest forms of the foods. The healthiest forms of meat and dairy products as listed above are the 100% grass-fed and organic products. Any other form of animal product tested will yield different and inaccurate results for the purpose of thoroughly testing health effects. The bottom line is that the protein from chia seeds, hemp seeds, lentils, avocado, certain green protein powders, sprouts, and bee pollen are all healthy sources of protein just as well as grass-fed meats and dairy products are. The protein in the meat/dairy is just known to be a more absorbable form, hence receiving more benefit in the way of a protein source from animal products.
Just as we need to work with our own bodies to decipher whether we should be eating plant or animal based protein and which form our bodies need when, we also need to work with our bodies to try and decipher a correct range of protein to focus on for the day. The range or balance of the ‘pool’ of amino acids in the body is thought to be most important. Proteins are broken down into individual amino acids inside of the body and settle in a ‘pool’ where most amino acids dwell in order to be matched up later to make a complete protein. This ‘matching up’ of the amino acids happens 3-4 times a day. In order for the matching process of the amino acids to yield the goal of a complete protein, there needs to be sufficient amounts of various amino acids. This process is called protein biosynthesis and is part of the reason that having a balance of amino acids is important. ‘If one or more amino acids are not available in sufficient quantities, the production of protein is limited, and the metabolism may only function in a limited way.’ (3) There are plenty of different formulas out there trying to ‘nail’ exactly how much protein your individual body needs for a normal day. The fact of the matter is that so many things play into precisely how much protein you need, that it is difficult to decipher. Protein intake can vary based on age, gender, lean body mass as compared to fat mass, exercise and activity throughout the day, disease states, pregnancy, etc. With that in mind, we can try to estimate a base level of protein per day by using a formula that is more specific to the biometric data pertaining to your body.
The basic formula that I have found most useful is on Dr. Mercola’s website. This formula states that ‘you likely need about one half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass.’ Dr. Mercola then goes on to say that ‘for most people this amounts to 40-70 grams of protein per day. Rarely does a person need more protein than this- the exception would be those who are aggressively exercising (or competing) and pregnant women, who should have about 25% more.’ Dr. Mercola also mentions that ‘Forty to 70 grams a day is in the general range of the CDC’s protein recommendations for adults. But the formula has the major advantage of taking into account your weight and body composition, which is more relevant than age and gender.’ If you don’t know your exact body composition at this point, you could just focus on the average amount of grams of protein that the CDC recommends based on gender: 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men. (4)
Although the CDC protein recommendations are seen as being pretty standard, I have seen recommendations in the range of 1.0-1.6 grams per kilogram body weight for the healthy exercising adult according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which would definitely place someone above the regular CDC protein requirements. The ISSN also states though that ‘some research suggests that protein requirements may actually decrease during training due to biological adaptations that improve net protein retention.’ Another interesting point they mention is that ‘Some data suggest that elderly men and women (the segment of the population most susceptible to osteoporosis) should consume dietary protein above current recommendations (0.8g/kg/day-current recommendations) to optimize bone mass.’ Other material also states that clinical measures improve in a person who has adequate amino acid supply due to the benefit of being better able to conquer disease states since they have more building material (being amino acids) so the body can more easily renovate. (5) Work with your own body and activity level to see how much protein per day you feel best with- this can be a process but paying attention to your body really is the only way to tailor to your needs. The main objective is to consume the correct balance of amino acids and range of protein per your bodily needs, whether from plant or animal sources.
How do we get the correct balance of amino acids? Should we be focusing more on animal protein or can plant protein benefit us as well? The answer to these questions (as briefly mentioned in the above paragraph) is that there are benefits to both categories and consuming from both categories will ensure that you receive a greater complement of nutrients, such as said most of our ancestors did. For animal products, focus on grass-fed and organic when possible. When the animal is grass-fed, the meat and the fat are much healthier partly since it now contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory. There is much benefit to eating animal products such as the point that amino acids coming from them are more similar to our own amino acid structures which yields them more absorb-able. Eating animal products also ensures that the body receives enough protein based sulfur, which is important so that the body can produce more protein. Dr. Mercola states a Japanese study in which it has been found that ‘adequate amount of animal protein may lower your risk of age related functional decline.’ (4) As mentioned before, when eating meat, short-term fasting techniques help the body to be able to keep the amino acids in a better balance, which again, seems to be the main concern.
When consuming plant based protein sources, they have their own known benefits. Plant based protein sources are found to help decrease blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. To receive all the amino acids needed to build a protein from a plant source, one would need to practice food combining since certain plant foods contain some amino acids and certain other plant foods contain the other amino acids needed to form a complete protein. An example of this is eating beans and rice, each of which supplies different amino acids, but when put together have all the amino acids needed to form a complete protein. If relying on plant foods for protein, however, we need to focus on the ones that are not heavily starchy such as is the case of beans like kidney and pinto beans. The combination of beans and rice does supply all of the essential amino acids, but, again, it is said that the amount of amino acids available to be absorbed into the body are less as compared to animal products. We also need to be aware of the amount of carbohydrates coming from plant foods. By eating continual meals like these, we are teaching our body to rely on carbohydrates and go through the blood sugar cycle, instead of teaching our body to utilize fat as a fuel source. When eating these kinds of meals, just be sure to add some form of healthy fat.
Just as vegetable based protein sources are healthy, the protein in organic grass-fed yogurt, full-fat cheese, beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, buffalo, whey protein powders (in the correct form) etc. can be healthy as well. As for how much you need of each different kind of protein is dependent on your particular body and what you usually have a ‘taste’ for, or craving. If you are eating primarily vegetarian sources of protein but have ceaseless cravings for meat, that could mean you need to incorporate some animal products into your diet. The same is true if you are totally relying on animal sources of protein but at times don’t feel like eating meat or some other form of animal protein a particular day. This taste orientation can be your ‘guide’ and your body’s way of telling you what you need to focus on- otherwise called intuitive eating. There is no need to overload the body with protein but it does need sufficient amounts to run properly. The balancing act is up to you based on your unique body type. The downfall of solely relying on plant protein sources is potentially ‘coming up short’ in the amount of amino acids needed by the body and thus setting the body up for nutrient deficiencies. The downfall of too much animal protein is potentially absorbing too much of a certain kind of amino acid and throwing the amino acid pool adversely off balance.
There is one last point about proteins that I would like to make- being that proteins yield amino acids after going through a couple of digestive processes within the body. This means, that the body needs sufficient amounts of enzymes and the correct amount of stomach acid in order to be able to break down the whole protein into the usable form of amino acids. Most people are deficient in digestive enzymes to one extent or another, due to lacking certain beneficial gut bacteria which at times play a role in creating some of the bodies enzymes, and also largely due to the fact that most of the food we eat now days is cooked. Cooking food destroys the natural enzymes already present to help digest and assimilate the food. When we cook all of our food, we are only left with what enzymes we readily have inside of our body, which most times isn’t enough to fully breakdown every bit of our meal in order to reap the full benefits of the nutrients the meal potentially has.
The fact that we may not be able to fully break down and absorb the full benefit of our meal, particularly protein- since it takes more energy for the body to break it down, means that supplementation can definitely come in handy. The supplementation that I am referring to is possibly a healthy protein powder and digestive enzymes/probiotics. The reason I underlined healthy is because there are so many unhealthy protein powders out there that it does get extremely confusing. If picked correctly, the protein in a healthy meal replacement or protein powder can absorb quickly and relatively easily into the body so as to eliminate some of the more complex processing systems used within the body when trying to digest other kinds of protein. Protein powders as mentioned in an above paragraph can come in the form of a plant protein or a dairy whey protein. Both supplements have their benefits and can help those in need of boosting quality protein intake, especially since it is in a form that can be enjoyable and convenient as compared to some other forms of protein. Quality protein powders can be good to add to smoothies and can also add other health benefits rather than just increasing protein intake.
There is just so much to cover when it comes to protein that it can tend to be overwhelming. My hope is that this article was more informative than it was confusing. When it comes to protein and how it functions as amino acids within the body, there are so many different topics to mention in order to get a good idea of what protein truly is as well as how to properly receive the needed benefits from it. Based on the quality and amount, protein can be helpful or harmful to the health- the main point is to keep everything in balance. Real benefits of consuming quality protein include being less hungry throughout the day- leading to eating less carbohydrates, losing weight by balanced blood sugar and less mood swings due to fewer spikes in insulin. To receive more direction on this topic or any of the others, you may need to speak with a health practitioner such as a Registered Dietitian at the Heart and Vascular Institute in Lapeer, MI.
1.) Amino acid. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acid
2.) International symposium “New treatment strategies using amino acids and proteins” (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.aminoacid-studies.com/research
3.) Why are amino acids so important? (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.aminoacid-studies.com
4.) Mercola, J. (n.d.). The Very Real Risks of Consuming Too Much Protein. Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/09/03/too-much-protein.asp
5.) International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from http://www.jissn.com/content/4/1/8