{STEP 1.4}  What is Protein?

Understanding what is protein is just as important as knowing how it functions in our bodies.  It is regarded as the nutrient that has boundless benefits and recently has received a lot of attention in mainstream media.  Let's take a closer look.

Similar to the other two macronutrients -- carbohydrates and lipids -- protein can also yield energy.  In reality, they act as the jack-of-all-trades, performing a variety of tasks within all the systems of our body. 

Key to understanding what is protein is its relationship with blood.  Protein and blood are best friends.  Do you remember how phospholipids allow fats to be transported throughout the bloodstream?

The relatively large protein molecule helps keep proper fluid balance in the blood vessels allowing them to function properly and prevent rupturing.  

Protein in diet helps blood to prevent uncontrolled losses during injuries by creating a trap for cells and forming a clot.  Blood also needs to keep a balance of acids and bases, known as a pH scale.  

Blood's pH can range from 7.35 - 7.45, which makes it slightly basic, but as the main transportation vehicle for the body, it encounters substances that are much more basic and acidic.  For example, stomach acid is over 100,000 times more acidic than water.  Protein has the ability to pick up or release acidic molecules in the blood and keep the pH in a healthy range.  

The magic behind protein's versatility are its building blocks known as amino acids. As cells in our body grow old or become damaged, they must be replaced with new cells to continue life.  We use amino acids to grow new cells in our tissues and replace the damaged and old.  

Enzymes help speed up chemical reactions within the body.  Hormones tell our body what to regulate so we it operates properly.  Both are built from amino acids.

Amino acids work in unison to create proteins that serve many vital functions in our bodies.  No one essential amino acid is more important than another.

Probably the most amazing use of amino acids and their resulting proteins is the impact they have on our immune system.  A majority of foreign particles that enter the body are proteins and when this happens large proteins called antibodies are created and released to attack the invader.  

Each antibody has the ability to distinguish between the thousands of other protein molecules in the body and focus on the one foreign molecule.  After completing its mission, the body is able to remember what this invader looks like and because it knows how to make the antibody to destroy it already the process is much faster the next time around.

Amino Acids:  The Limitless Combinations in Making What is Protein

Humans possess twenty different amino acids which are arranged in varying combinations and lengths.  Some can be made within the body and others need to be supplied by the diet. Luckily, nine of the essential amino acids that make up what is protein can be found in a wide variety of foods. 

Foods that provide all nine amino acids are considered complete proteins. Incomplete proteins provide only some of the essential amino acids but can be paired with foods that provide the missing amino acids.  This combination of foods is referred to as pairing complimentary proteins.

Each amino acid has unique properties. When arranged together some are attracted to each other while others prefer to have space.

This personality causes the strands of the protein molecule to twist and invert into differing configurations.  Usually, the resulting protein has a globe structure.

This complex three dimensional structure must be broken down to be properly digested.  The process is called denaturation.

The idea is that by using the strong acid in the stomach, the protein is unwound and unraveled so that digestive enzymes can break up the amino acid strands.

Some of the protein in diet is broken up into single amino acids to be used immediately but, generally speaking, proteins are denatured into chunks called polypeptides, and will be broken down from large strands into single amino acids as needed by the body.  This process is a testament to our body's extreme efficiency in using nutrients.

Choosing the Right Path for the Amino Acids

An amino acid has three options to take after it enters a cell.  Preferably it will be used in combination with other free amino acids to become part of what is protein.  

If the cell is starved for energy and no glucose or fatty acids are available, the amino acid can be taken apart to produce energy.  The reverse is also true.  If the body has too many amino acids and energy, it can break them down and be stored as glucose or fat.  

There is a problem with amino acids taking the second pathway. All the amino acids contain nitrogen, an element that our bodies are unable to use for energy.  
 It creates waste that the body must excrete.

Wasting these valuable amino acids is the last possible route.  Amino acids are only as strong as their weakest link.  Cells cannot make proteins if just one of the essential amino acids is missing.  So if the body has too much of any single amino acid or there are not enough essential amino acids from a diet of incomplete proteins, there will be waste.

Waste is growing problem in the modern diet.  Supplementation of single amino acids is an underlying cause as well as the trend to intake proportionally large amounts of protein in the diet.  Too much protein in diet can be harmful, just as taking in not enough is problematic.

As we proceed onto creating your healthy diet plan, we will learn how protein plays a role in it and where to find high-quality sources in food.  But first, let's continue our journey to finding the first piece of your healthy diet puzzle.

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Read these articles to get a basic understanding of the concepts...

  1. Benefits of a Healthy Diet:  Reasons to Change Your Life for the Better

  2. What are Carbohydrates and Do You Really Need Them?

  3. What are Lipids and Are They as Scary as They Sound?

  4. What is Protein and How Does My Body Actually Use It?

  5. What is Fiber and Why is It So Important to a Healthy Diet?

  6. What are Vitamins?  For Starters... They're Essential Nutrients

  7. What is a Healthy Diet?  Its Core Components Explained

**As always, feel free to use the navigation below to backtrack and get an overview of Healthy Diet Mentor and our plan to get you on your way to a lifelong healthy diet.

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