The Role of Dietary Protein
- While we often talk about protein in relation to dietary protein, few consumers are truly aware of the full role of protein in the human body. Muscle growth and maintenance aside, protein plays a crucial role in health, development, cellular signaling, and oxygen use.
When we talk about protein, we’re talking about much more than the number of grams contained in an egg or a chicken breast: we’re also talking about a vital nutrient that predicts the metabolic capabilities of virtually every cell in the human body.
Protein is comprised of individual “building blocks” known as amino acids. Our bodies are able to synthesize proteins, or by modifying them once they have been consumed. Proteins that must be consumed through diet (because they cannot be synthesized) are known as essential amino acids, of which there are nine.
Additionally, proteins can be either complete or incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins are lacking one or more essential amino acids. Animal proteins are complete proteins, while vegetarian proteins are incomplete. For this reason, vegetarians need to vary their protein consumption in order to consume all of the amino acids essential for their multiple roles in the human body.
Enzymes are specialized proteins comprised of long chains of amino acids. Enzymes catalyze important chemical reactions in the human body, allowing for normal processes of metabolism, digestion, and DNA replication and maintenance, amongst others. In the absence of sufficient enzymes, the human body would screech to a halt, unable to transfer molecules, break chemical bonds, or generate energy.
Muscle Growth and Repair
One of the most talked about functions of protein, dietary protein is crucial for the growth and repair of muscle tissue. Muscle depends on a steady supply of amino acids in order to prevent catabolism, which occurs when muscle fibers are depleted but unable to repair themselves in the absence of sufficient “building materials”, ie protein. Protein aids in the constant process of cellular regeneration in muscle tissue, during periods of muscle growth and maintenance.
So-called “messenger proteins” are responsible for cellular communication. Messenger proteins relay information from cells in one area of the body to cells in another area of the body. Organ function, blood pressure, blood sugar management, metabolism, and DNA transcription are highly dependant on messenger proteins for cellular relay. Protein synthesis is also highly dependent on messenger proteins for the continued synthesis of various proteins and structures.
Protein is a crucial component of hemoglobin, the protein inside red blood cells responsible for oxygen transport. Foods rich in protein and iron aid in the production of hemoglobin. Low protein consumption may lead to various forms of anemia, particularly Iron Deficiency Anemia and B-12 Deficiency Anemia. Foods rich in heme iron and dietary protein play an important role in the development of hemoglobin. Foods rich in Vitamin B-12 help sustain the number of healthy red blood cells present in the body. Low consumption of B-12 can cause a reduction in red blood cell count, leading to anemia.