For years now, the importance of getting plenty of protein has been in the headlines. But what is the science behind it?
What are proteins?
All proteins are made out of 21 building blocks called amino acids, which are in turn constructed out of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen atoms. Some proteins also contain sulphur atoms. Proteins differ from one another primarily in their sequence of amino acids.
For humans, proteins are non-negotiable in terms of having a healthy, fully functioning body. When protein is broken down through the digestive process, amino acids can be accessed by the body. There are nine essential amino acids which humans must obtain from their diet to prevent protein–energy malnutrition. They are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine.
After water, amino acids make up the greatest portion of our body weight. They are responsible for building cells and repairing tissue, they form antibodies to fight dangerous bacteria and viruses; they are part of the enzyme and hormonal system; they build nucleoproteins (RNA & DNA); they carry oxygen throughout the body and contribute to muscle activity.
So, what are the best ways of obtaining this incredible, life building substance?
What are the best sources of protein?
An average person needs around 0.8-1g of protein per 1kg of body weight per day. However, for weightlifters and strength athletes 1.4 – 2g of protein per kg of body weight is recommended per day, whilst endurance athletes should consume 1.2-1.6g of protein per kg of body weight per day.
The best sources of plant-based protein are:
- vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, sweetcorn, and avocado
- soya products such as tofu, soy milk, tempeh, soy oils
- nuts and seeds
- beans, pulses, and lentils and peas (try our pea-protein Pure Pasta)
- chia seeds
- brown and wild rice
The best way to ensure that you get adequate protein on a plant-based diet is to eat a wide variety of real foods. If you are finding it a challenge to meet your protein needs with your meals, there is a wide range of supplements and fortified foods available. These include protein bars, flapjacks, pancakes, and pasta.
The enormous benefits of protein for human health are still being discovered, especially in relation to fighting illness.
For example, in 2017, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that the ULBP6 protein, which is found on the surface of damaged cells, including several types of cancer cells, acts as a ‘flag’ to signal to white cells in our immune system that the damaged cell should be destroyed.
Professor Paul Moss, who led the study, told Science Daily:
“Interestingly, there are two major types of this protein in the population and people who inherit a certain subtype have been shown to have a poor outcome after stem cell transplantation, a procedure used to treat leukaemia, which is commonly referred to as ‘bone marrow treatment’.”
Professor Ben Willcox, also from the University of Birmingham‘s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, said:
“The two types of ULBP6 differ only by two amino acids out of a total of around 180 and it has surprised us that this can have such an important influence on patient outcomes.
The type of protein referred to above is inherited rather than consumed, but it illustrates the importance protein and amino acids play in keeping your body healthy. Protein, when it breaks down into its amino acids, is essential for building a strong immune system, muscle, and overall wellbeing.