Protein is so important. It is the nutrient that supports your body in building healthy tissues and cells. Not only this, but it is responsible for our hormones, our mood, blood sugar balance and our enzymatic processes.
Proteins are fundamental structural and functional elements within every cell of the body and are involved in a wide range of metabolic interactions. Proteins are used every day to keep the body going. Because they’re used to develop, grow and maintain just about every part of our bodies, from our skin and hair to our digestive enzymes and immune system antibodies , they’re constantly being broken down and must be replaced. Vital organs, muscles, tissues and even some hormones of the body are made from proteins. Additionally, proteins create haemoglobin and important antibodies. Proteins are involved in just about every body function from controlling blood sugar levels, keeping our neurotransmitters balanced to healing wounds and fighting off bacteria.
What is protein?
All cells and tissues contain protein, therefore protein is essential for growth and repair and the maintenance of good health. Protein provides the body with approximately 10 to 15% of its dietary energy and it is the second most abundant compound in the body, following water. A large proportion of this will be muscle (43% on average) with significant proportions being present in skin (15%) and blood (16%). The protein that makes up our bodies is not obtained directly from the foods that we eat. Dietary protein is broken down into its ‘building blocks’- amino acids, which the body can then use as it needs.
Protein and your mood
Nutrition can play an important role in achieving better mental health. Studies have shown that adults with depression who ate a diet rich in produce, fish and legumes experienced a reduction of their symptoms.
Foods rich in protein contain amino acids to help produce key neurotransmitters in preventing and treating depression and anxiety. Protein packed meals and snacks help you avoid sugary, processed foods, which can trigger anxiety and depression. A diet rich in protein also helps improve energy levels, giving you the strength to get moving and feel better.
Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals which allow brain cells to communicate with each other. For example, if you eat a piece of chicken, your body breaks down the protein and synthesises the amino acid L-Tyrosine to produce Dopamine. Low dopamine levels are associated with a whole host of disorders, including depression, addiction. ADHD, Alzheimers and schizophrenia.The amino acid L-Tryptophan, which can be found in poultry, fish, dairy and nuts, serves a precursor to serotonin. Eating foods rich in L-Tryptophan can help improve mood and help SSRIs and other antidepressants work better.
Your brain is very reliant on several amino acids in order to manufacture neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are commonly referred to as brain hormones because they enable communication between different regions of the brain, and they significantly impact your mood, emotions and cognitive functions. Tryptophan is an amino acid needed for the production of serotonin. You have probably heard serotonin referred to as the happy hormone. Serotonin is a compound in the brain that promotes feelings of relaxation, happiness, security and confidence.
A serotonin deficiency can result in depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety and a tendency to overeat, especially carbohydrates like sugar. Feeling stressed can deplete your brain of serotonin, and levels decline as we age. Eggs, salmon, turkey, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are all good sources of tryptophan.
An important amino acid for the brain is Tyrosine. Tyrosine is required for the manufacture of the brain chemicals dopamine and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). These neurotransmitters are required for concentration, alertness, memory and a happy, stable mood. They may also help you to handle stress more easily and feel less overwhelmed by problems.
Tyrosine is also required for the manufacture of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones help to control your metabolic rate, but they also play a critical role in mood. Hypothyroidism (under active thyroid gland) is a common cause of depression. What you may not know is that even a slightly under functioning thyroid gland can flatten your mood, reduce your motivation and your ability to concentrate. Tyrosine is found in fish, turkey, chicken, avocados, almonds and a few other foods.
Protein and blood sugar control
Eating protein regularly is very important for good blood sugar control. If you eat some protein for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it should help to reduce your risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Low blood sugar can cause mood swings and it predisposes you to anxiety or depression. Eating sugar and starchy, carbohydrate rich goods can promote large swings in your blood sugar level.
Essential amino acids
There are about 20 different amino acids commonly found in plant and animal proteins. For adults, 8 of these, have to be provided in the diet and are therefore defined as ‘essential’ or ‘indispensable’ amino acids. These are:
In children, arginine, histidine, cysteine, glycine, tyrosine, glutamine and proline are also considered to be essential (indispensable) amino acids, because children are unable to make enough to meet their needs. These are referred to as ‘conditionally’ essential. There may also be certain disease states during adult life when a particular amino acid becomes conditionally essential.
How much protein should we eat?
The Dietary Reference Values for protein are based on estimates of need. For adults, an average requirement of 0.6g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day is estimated. There is an extra requirement for growth in infants and children and for pregnant and breast feeding women. Any excess protein can be used to provide energy.
Good sources of protein
Protein content of some common foods found in the diet
Protein content (g) per 100g
Meat Chicken breast (grilled without skin) - 32 Beef steak (lean grilled) - 31.0 Lamb chop (lean grilled) - 29.2 Pork chop (lean grilled) - 31.6
Fish Tuna (canned in brine) - 23.5 Mackerel (grilled) - 20.8 Salmon (grilled) - 24.2 Cod (grilled) - 20.8
Adults and children should consume two to three servings of protein every day. If plant sources dominate, it is important to make sure that different types are consumed. One typical portion size equates to: • 100g of lean boneless meat (red and poultry) • 140g of fish • 2 medium eggs • 3 tablespoons of seeds or nuts.
When buying protein, make sure it’s from organic, natural sources. Non-organic protein derived from animals are loaded with hormones, antibiotics, steroids and other chemicals that may cause you more health complications.
You can go to the website nutritiondata.com and look up the amount of protein in the amount of food you’ve consumed.
If you go to DrAxe.com and search for protein in the search box, you will find a plethora of recipes and protein snack ideas that you can explore. Dr Axe is also a great resource for learning more about natural health.
Animal Poultry Rabbit Venison Red meat Game Eggs Dairy – yoghurt, cottage cheese, fromage frais, Greek yoghurt, etc
Seafood White fish, e.g. Coley, Cod, Haddock, Sole, Bass, Sole, Halibut, Whiting Oily fish, e.g. salmon, trout, herrings, sardines, mackerel, pilchards, fresh tuna Shellfish Plant Sources Beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas Hummus (made from chickpeas and sesame seeds) Baked beans – check for the sugar content, choose organic unsweetened if possible Tofu – either plain that can be marinated or stir-fried, or as sausages or burgers Nuts and seeds (in moderation) – raw and unsalted and avoid peanuts Quinoa
Supplement Sources Protein bars Whey protein powders Soy protein isolates Amino acid formulas in tablets or capsules
Protein Combining – combining two or more different types of protein can maximise the bio-availability of amino acids, e.g. Eggs and lean ham or fish Baked beans, eggs and salmon Cottage cheese and fish Steak and eggs