What is protein?
Protein is one of the basic building blocks of the human body, making up about 16 percent of our total body weight. Muscle, hair, skin, and connective tissue are mainly made up of protein. However, protein plays a major role in all of the cells and most of the fluids in our bodies. In addition, many of our bodies' important chemicals -- enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and even our DNA -- are at least partially made up of protein. Although our bodies are good at “recycling” protein, we use up protein constantly, so it is important to continually replace it.
Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids. Our bodies cannot manufacture nine of the amino acids, so it is important to include all these amino acids in our diets. Animal proteins such as meat, eggs, and dairy products have all the amino acids, and many plants have some of them.
The word protein is a derivation of the Greek word “protos,” meaning “first,” since protein is the basic material of all living cells.
Why do we need to eat protein?
Various tissues in our body are in a constant state of turnover, breaking down and re-forming. Through the process of digestion, humans break down eaten protein into amino acids, which can then be used again as the building blocks for proteins, as needed. So really, our requirement is for amino acids rather than protein, as such.
As mentioned before, proteins are made up of amino acids; humans have a need for a wide range of amino acids. We have the ability to make some of the amino acids within our own body, but there are eight that we have to get through diet. These are termed “essential amino acids” (for those who really want to know , these are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylaianine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. In addition, arginine and histadine is an essential amino acid for infants).
If we don’t have enough of these amino acids in our diet, then proteins within the body break down, body protein content decreases, and over the long-term, this leads to decreases in endurance/strength and eventually, illness.
How much protein do you need for good health?
As a general rule, between 10 percent and 15 percent of your total calories should come from protein. So, if you consume 2,000 calories per day, at least 200 should come from protein, or about 50 grams. You should try to eat around one gram of protein per one kilogram of body weight, or around 0.4 grams per pound. An easier way to figure this out in your head is to take your weight, divide it in half, and subtract 10. The total will be the number of grams of protein you should consume each day. So, if you weigh 120 pounds, you should eat about 50 grams of protein.
What happens if we don’t eat enough protein?
Unlike fat and glucose, our body has little capacity to store protein. If we were to stop eating protein, our body would start to break down muscle for its needs within a day or so.