What do proteins do in the body? Why are they so important?

Protein provides the structural basis for our body: building and repairing our muscles, ligaments, tendons, organs, glands, nails, hair, blood, hormones, neurotransmitters, cell receptor sites, antibodies, and enzymes.

As you read and learn about what protein does in your body, please consider this question – are you eating enough protein? Most Americans do not!

Let’s take a closer look at the functions of protein:

Building and repairing muscles, ligaments, and tendons – this is obviously extremely important for all competitive athletes. Building and repairing is a continuous process. Exercise breaks down muscle and then the body builds newer, bigger, and stronger muscle in its place via the repair process. Protein is essential for a strong body. If you have had a recent injury or are recovering from an injury protein is even more important.

Organs and glands – these are at the basic operating systems of your body. The heart and lungs for breathing and circulation; the stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and pancreas for digestion; the liver for hundreds of functions including keeping the blood clean; the endocrine glands for producing the hormones that regulate and monitor how your body functions. Protein keeps these systems up and running!

Nails and hair – for beautiful glowing hair and robust nails protein is important.

Hormones – regulating and controlling all the key processes of your body. This includes blood sugar control, stress response, metabolism, and the menstrual cycle to name a few. Along with neurotransmitters the hormones determine how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally at any given moment.

Neurotransmitters – neurotransmitters are very important to the athlete, particularly at the mental level. The competitive athlete needs to be mentally sharp and decisive. A more detailed discussion of neurotransmitters follows the protein section.

Antibodies – a critical part of our immune system to keep us healthy.

Enzymes – the catalyst to all the chemical reactions in our bodies.

Where does protein come from?

Proteins come from both animal (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs) and plant sources (whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds). When we eat protein we are actually consuming amino acids. Different proteins have different amino acid compositions.

Among the amino acids there are nine that are considered “essential.” Anytime you hear the word “essential” in nutrition it means we need to eat that specific nutrient because our body does not manufacture it. Other “essentials” are some fatty acids, Vitamin C, and minerals.

You will also hear the term “complete” as it relates to protein. This means that the specific protein source contains all of the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to sustain human life. With few exceptions, only animal based proteins are complete. Non-animal based proteins considered to be complete include spirulina and quinoa. This is why vegetarians are advised to combine foods (such as rice and beans) to receive all the essential amino acids.

Since our body is constantly building and repairing itself, it requires a constant supply of protein. Therefore I recommend protein be consumed with each meal.

I come back to the original question – are you eating enough protein to supply your body what it needs for all these functions?

What proteins should I eat?

Eat these foods for protein:

MEATS: Beef, bison, lamb, veal, lean pork
POULTRY: Chicken, turkey, duck
SEAFOOD: Any fish or shellfish, fresh or frozen
OTHER PROTEINS: Legumes (beans and peas)
NUTS & SEEDS: Nuts and seeds such as: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raw or dehydrated
Natural nut butters where oil rises to the top – avoid commercial brands (containing hydrogenated oils and sugar), best is almond butter.

· Eggs

· Butter

· Cheese, Cottage cheese

· Yogurt without added sugar

Practice balance and moderation of these foods for protein:

GRAINS (Limited quantities ONLY – 1-2 times per day maximum):

· Sprouted grain bread: “Ezekiel”

· Whole grain breads/crackers

· Whole grains – brown rice, quinoa, bulgur, millet, wild rice

· Whole grain cereals, pastas – i.e. oatmeal, health store cereals

How much protein should I eat?

You will see a variety of answers to this question. For sure you should have some protein with each meal for reasons previously outlined. A general rule of thumb is to consume a minimum of one-third of your body weight in grams of protein. For those with an active lifestyle, such as the competitive athlete the recommendation increases to one-half of the body weight in grams.

To see the amount of grams of protein in various foods click here: