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Protein's Are Important

Updated on June 27, 2017

You will hear proteins called the basic building blocks of life. You will also hear the same phrase being used to describe amino acids. So what is the difference between an amino acid and a protein? And why is it important to take protein supplements?

Proteins are long chains or concatenations of amino acids all joined together by peptide bonds. About 20 basic amino acids exist, and the combination and order that the individual amino acids are laid down in determines the type of protein that ultimately is formed. If proteins are like the bricks that go into building a structure, amino acids are like the sand, clay and rock that go into making the bricks.

A huge range of proteins are produced in the human body: insulin, keratin (in skin and hair), collagen, immunoglobin, hemoglobin (in the blood), tubulin and actin (both in the muscles) and elastin (in ligaments and joints). Proteins play a range of roles in the body – in fact, DNA gives the body instructions to produce proteins – all the vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates merely play a role in assisting the production of protein. Some proteins are enzymes that trigger reactions of digestion, anabolism and metabolism, as well as repairing damaged DNA (DNA is damaged by free radical oxygen molecules – antioxidants are designed to prevent this damage happening by removing the free radicals). Other proteins are part of the immune system to protect the body from disease. And yet others play their part in the most well-known role of protein: building muscles, tissues, ligaments, bones and all other cells throughout the body.

Proteins can also be converted into glucose for energy, but it takes quite a long time for the body to do this. This means that protein staves off hunger pangs because the “boom and bust” pattern of energy/blood sugar released by simple carbohydrates goes quickly. Protein, therefore, can be very important in weight loss. Eating an all-protein diet, however, is not good in the long-term for your overall health, and taking protein supplements can allow you to get extra protein without the fats that often accompany “regular” dietary sources of protein.

The body can synthesize the proteins that it needs, but it can’t build something from nothing. Getting protein in the diet is vital to make sure the body doesn’t turn on itself to maintain its vital functions, with the skin and hair being first to lose condition – this is often seen in anorexic patients. Dietary sources of protein include pulses (beans and peas), dairy products, eggs, meat and fish, with wholegrains and fungi (mushrooms) providing a less significant amount. However, many people who are concerned for their health stay away from meat, eggs and dairy for the fat content, while others are vegetarian/vegan or have lactose or egg intolerances. In these cases, protein supplements are vital (vegans will also need to ensure that they get enough Vitamin B12, which will have to be taken in supplement form as it is very rare in vegetable foods).

People from all walks of life can benefit from using protein supplements. While protein bars and supplements are more associated with bodybuilders, they are suitable for all walks of life – they are especially good for growing children, and nursing and pregnant mothers (note, however, that protein powders are not a substitute for infant formula).

The protein comes from several sources:

Whey: derived from cow’s milk. It is low in fat and is easy to digest but is not suitable for those with lactose intolerances or vegans.

Casein: also derived from cow’s milk – it’s the “curds” part of the old “curds and whey” in the nursery rhyme. It is very slow-burning and is often used as a meal replacement to control weight. It is not suitable for lactose intolerant people or vegans. Sometimes, nutritional supplements combine casein and protein.

Egg protein: comes from eggs, obviously. Sometimes, the whole egg is used and sometimes, just the egg white is used, with the egg white variety being lower in fat. This is suitable for lactose intolerant people, but not for those with egg allergies or who are vegans.

Soy protein: derived from the soybean. Low in fat and is suitable for vegans and those with dairy intolerances. However, if you’re allergic to soy, it is not suitable.

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