Understanding the Essential Functions of Protein in the Human Body

As a kid, you likely learned about the food pyramid in school. The pyramid has fatty foods on top, high-carb bread and pasta on the bottom, and fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat somewhere in between. While this diagram is useful for kids, it doesn’t tell the whole story of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and what your body needs to keep you strong and healthy.

Protein is one of the macronutrients your body needs to survive. But aside from that, what else do you know about protein? If you’re considering reducing or increasing your protein intake, you should first understand all of protein’s essential functions.

Molecular Makeup

According to The Nutrition Source from Harvard University, “at least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.” Protein can be found all across the human body, for example, in your skin, bones, muscles, and more.

All proteins found in nature are made of a combination of the same 20 amino acids. While the body can produce some amino acid types, it can’t synthesize nine of them, so you have to procure these essential amino acids through your food.

Protein’s Key Functions

The different proteins produced and used by the body carry out a wide range of functions. For example, protein accomplishes the following:

  • Aids in Transportation of Nutrients- Proteins are responsible for transporting blood sugar, cholesterol, oxygen, and nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
  • Promotes Growth and Repair- Your body’s protein requirements depend on your activity level. Your body usually synthesizes the same amount of protein that it absorbs to grow, repair, and maintain tissues.
  • Provides Framework– Proteins, such as collagen, keratin, and elastin, provide bones and tissues with structure or rigidity. All of these proteins help lay down the framework to ensure the functionality of specific structures.
  • Fluid Stability– The body contains albumin and globulin proteins that work to maintain the body’s fluid levels by drawing and retaining water. If you don’t consume sufficient protein, you may experience a decrease in albumin and globulin levels, which causes swelling, particularly in the stomach area.

Natural Protein Sources

Natural protein sources include animal and plant-based proteins. Animal proteins contain almost all the essential amino acids, which are easier for the body to digest. Plant sources typically contain less protein than animal sources, but you can still get all nine essential amino acids from eating plant-based proteins.

Popular Protein Supplements

There are plenty of benefits of consuming more protein. Protein doesn’t just repair tissues and transport oxygen, but it also aids digestion and helps you stay in shape by promoting lean muscle and curbing appetite.

The recommended protein intake for an average person is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. To meet protein requirements or to help build muscle, many turn to protein supplements. Popular protein supplements include:

  • Whey Protein- Whey protein comes from cow’s milk. When heated, the milk splits into two components: solid curds and liquid whey. However, most manufacturers sell whey protein in its powder form, which results from a filtering and drying process. Typically, athletes use whey protein to help build muscle.
  • Casein Protein- Like whey protein, casein protein comes from cow milk and is a byproduct of the cheese-making process. It’s important to note that casein protein takes longer to absorb than whey powder. Users tend to take it before bed to provide protein while they sleep.
  • Collagen Powder- Collagen powder or collagen peptides are extracted from animal skin, hides, and bones. The resulting powder contains amino acids that can easily dissolve in warm or cold liquids. Many people consume collagen powder to improve their skin health, relieve joint pain, and increase bone density.
  • Pea Protein- The process of creating pea protein includes drying peas, removing the outer shell, and passing them through a mill to make protein-containing starch and fiber. Pea protein powder also contains iron and may promote weight loss, muscle growth, and heart health.
  • Egg Protein- Egg protein is made by pulverizing and drying egg whites before adding preservatives and additives. Most often, people use it to promote muscle gain and muscle repair.
  • Soy Protein- Soy protein comes from defatted soybeans that are washed and dried, containing no cholesterol and very little fat. Many users take soy protein to contribute to their weight resistance training and gain muscle.

Protein and the Food Pyramid

A complete, healthy meal consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, fats, and, of course, protein. Whether you get your protein from animal sources, plant sources, supplements, or a combination of the three, make sure you consume all nine essential amino acids. Without them, your plate—and your food pyramid—are incomplete.

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