Proteins – Why They are Vital to us and How Much we Really Need

Protein – one of our life elixirs

Protein is one of the three most important macronutrients and energy source for our body besides fats and carbohydrates. The importance is already in his name: the Greek word “proteios” means “basic” and is based on “protos” for “first”. In contrast to carbohydrates, proteins are essential. This means that our body depends on the supply of proteins and can not produce them ourselves. If we refrain from protein for a long time, it can lead to death. Carbohydrates can be made by our bodies when needed and therefore they are not essential. About 20% of our body is made up of proteins and these are involved in innumerable body processes, which make them indispensable in our food intake.

What are proteins?

Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. A single protein can consist of a few single to more than a thousand contiguous amino acids. In fact,  our body can produce 8 of these 20 amino acids from nitrogen and carbon precursors. 2 amino acids are “semi-essential”. Our body can construct them from other amino acids. The 8 essential amino acids can only be absorbed by our food. 2 other amino acids are important only in our growth phases, ie childhood, adolescence, and pregnant women and nursing mothers. Some foods provide us all 20 amino acids and are therefore called “complete proteins”, e.g. Spirulina or soybeans. All the proteins that we absorb via our food are broken down into the individual amino acids in the stomach and distributed in our body.

Why do we need protein?

Proteins play an important role in the construction and renewal of every body cell. Thus, each of our hairs, every nail, every bone, every skin cell, every muscle, and every organ, such as the lungs, liver, heart, and digestive tract, consists of proteins. But that’s not enough! Proteins also have many other vital functions in our body. They have a major role in blood clotting and blood formation, work as enzymes and are important components of hormones. In addition, they transport fats, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins through our bodies and, as antibodies in our immune system, they help to protect us from infections. This also explains the fact that complete renunciation of protein leads to certain death, otherwise, our organs will fail long term.

Proteins don't have to come from meat, eggs or dairy products – there are some really great plant-based proteinbombs
Proteins don’t have to come from meat, eggs or dairy products – there are some really great plant-based protein sources
How much protein do you need daily?

Although proteins play such an important role, we take relatively little from them compared to carbohydrates and fats. The recommendation for an average person is 0.8-1 g protein per kg body weight. 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight does not apply to pregnant women, nursing mothers, children and adolescents in the growth phase and very active athletes. Soon I’ll tell you something about the biological value of proteins.

A guideline is about 15% of the total daily calories. For example, assuming 2000 kcal per day, 15% is 300 kcal. Since proteins supply 4 kcal per gram, you should eat about 75 g of protein at a targeted 2000 kcal/day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should calculate about 20-30%. Here, studies show that we do not have to take all 20 amino acids every day, but in the course of a week should have covered all. With my porridge you start your day perfectly! 🙂

There are indeed studies showing that our satiety is strongly related to protein intake. You could even say that we are only full when we have enough protein with a meal. This and more on the Atkins diet soon more, because it is really an exciting topic that is also heavily used in food manipulation and marketing. That would also explain why we sometimes eat something and feel we could eat three more portions of it. One more reason to look for one protein-rich ingredient or several at each meal!

What is a protein deficiency?

If we eat too little of this important macronutrient, it can come in extreme cases to a protein deficiency (Kwashiorkor). However, in today’s world, and especially in the western world, there is almost never a protein deficiency except for anorexia. In this country, we suffer more from an oversupply. Large parts of our population consume about 150% of the recommended daily intake of protein. We know that the number of overweight people of all ages is increasing.

Deficiency symptoms are, of course, directly linked to the functions of proteins. If we take in too little, it can lead to muscle wasting and tissue breakdown in general. In addition, the susceptibility to infections may increase, the digestion may deteriorate and blood formation may be disturbed. Since proteins are the main constituent of muscles, long-term protein deficiency leads to a restriction of all muscle activities. We feel limp, weak and lethargic. Our skin is also affected, as the main component of cell growth is missing and therefore the cells can also renew worse.

What happens with a protein surplus?

Unlike an excess of carbohydrates and fats, our body is unable to store too much protein so easily. Although our muscles are a storage place for proteins. But before our body goes to our muscles for energy, it first uses the carbohydrate and fat reserves. In contrast, increased intake of animal (!) proteins are associated with a high intake of cholesterol and saturated fats. This also includes diabetes mellitus type II, coronary heart disease and chronic degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Diseases of the detoxification organs such as the kidneys increase with increasing protein intake. In addition, numerous studies show a strong correlation between milk proteins and acne. A look at the gym between the whole protein shakes with whey protein shows that this species is prone to strong, purulent rashes and pimples. These relationships have been found in studies only with an oversupply of animal protein. One more reason to cover its protein needs with vegetable foods.

Nutrition and aging researcher Valter Longo from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles puts it in a nutshell. He emphasizes that one of the most important results of his years of work is that high-protein diets (animal protein) harm health similarly to smoking. It is noteworthy that the results were not from animal experiments, but involved about 6400 people. He showed that the risk of developing cancer increased fourfold with an increased intake of animal protein. In addition, Longo’s studies showed that a high-protein diet plays a very critical role in tumor patients and cancer patients. As already mentioned, proteins are very important in growth, and this is the case not only for benign but also for malignant cells.

Here are some plant-based protein sources by Simple Happy Kitchen
Here are some plant-based protein sources by Simple Happy Kitchen
The difference between plant and animal protein

In contrast to animal protein, studies show that the plant-based, vegan variant is not only non-harmful but also very beneficial and can protect against disease. Above all, elevated blood pressure and increased risk of diabetes are associated with animal protein (here a study on this). But the opposite is true for plant protein: lower blood pressure and a lower risk of diabetes. Especially the probability of getting cancer is strongly related to animal protein intake. Not only studies of the renowned Harvard University support this hypothesis.

It is not fully understood why this is happening. In principle one could think that amino acids are first of all amino acids, no matter from which source they come from. Nevertheless, the fact that the intake of animal sources of protein can also absorb other undesirable substances such as cholesterol and trans fatty acids should not be ignored. It does not matter if it’s organic or not. In the case of vegetable foods, on the other hand, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and trace elements are also included. As soon as there are new scientific findings, I will keep you up to date.

Where do vegans get their protein from?

Just the question “Where do you get as vegan your protein?” is probably one of the most common questions that I get asked. (The other is: Why do vegans eat fake meat?) In fact, I also do a lot more sports than average. It is actually funny that non-vegans eat mainly herbivores as a source of protein. For example, chicken meat, egg, fish and beef are the most common thing that comes to mind when it comes to protein sources. Common to all is that they are herbivores that need to get the protein from somewhere, too. Namely from their food, so-called “plants”. I do not think anyone would ask an elephant, a gorilla or a hippopotamus where its protein comes from. All pure herbivores and within the strongest animals on our planet.

That’s why I love to skip the fact that I have to eat the vegetable protein via the detour of an animal. It is similar to vitamin B12, as I have already explained in my blog post. Although I am a fan of second-hand, not in all circumstances. Especially if I can easily avoid animal suffering.

“People eat meat and think they will become as strong as an ox, forgetting that the ox eats grass.”

Pino Caruso

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Here are all studies for this blogpost

Hosios, A. M./Hecht, V. C./Danai, L. V./Johnson, M. O./Rathmell, J. C./Steinhauser, M. L./Manalis, S. R./Vander Heiden, M. G. 2016: Amino Acids Rahter than Glucose Account for the Majority of Cell Mass in Proliferating Mammalian Cells, in: Developmental Cell, Vol. 36, 2016, No. 5, pp. 540-549.

Juhl, C. R./Bergholdt, H. K. M./Miller, I. M./Jemec, G. B. E./Kanters, J. K./Ellervik, C. 2018: Dairy Intake and Acne Vulgaris: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 78,529 Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults, in: Nutrients, Vol. 10, 2018, No. 8.

Lagiou, P./Sandin, S./Lof, M./Trichopoulos, D./Adami, H.-O./Weiderpass, E. 2012: Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Swedish women: prospective cohort study, in: British Medical Journal (BMJ), Vol. 344, 2012.

Levine, M. E./Suarez, J. A./Brandhorst, S./Balasubramanian, P./Cheng, C.-W./Madia, F./Fontana, L./Mirisola, M. G./Guevara-Aguirre, J./Wan, J./Passarino, G./Kennedy, B. K./Wei, M./Cohen, P./Crimmins, E. M./Longo, V. D. 2014: Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population, in: Cell Metabolism, Vol. 19, 2014, No. 3, pp. 407-417.

Malik, V. S./Li, Y./Tobias, D. K./Pan, A./Hu, F. B. 2016: Dietary Protein Intake and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women, in: American Journal of Epidemology, Vol. 183, 2016, No. 8, pp. 715-728.

Marckmann, P./Osther, P./Pedersen, A. N./Jespersen, B. 2015: High-Protein Diets and Renal Health, in: Journal of Renal Nutrition, Vol. 25, 2015, No. 1, pp. 1-5.

O’Leary, M. B. 2014: Controlling protein intake may be key to longevity, studies show, in: Elsevier Connect, 2014.

Richter, C. K./Skulas-Ray, A. C./Champagne, C. M./ Kris-Etherton, P. M. 2015: Plant Protein and Animal Proteins: Do They Differentially Affect Cardiovascular Disease Risk?, in: Advances in Nutrition, Vol. 6, 2015, No. 6, pp. 712-728.

Solon-Biet, S. M./McMahon, A. C./Ballard, J. W. O./Ruohonen, K./Wu, L. E./Cogger, V. C./Warren, A./Huang, X./Pichaud, N./Melvin, R. G./Gokam, R./Khalil, M./Turner, N./Cooney, G. J./Sinclair, D. A./Raubenheimer, D./Le Couteur, D. G./Simpson, S. J. 2014: The Ratio of Macronutrients, Not Caloric Intake, Dictates Cardiometabolic Health, Aging, and Longevity in Ad Libitum-Fed Mice, in: Cell Metabolism, Vol. 19, 2014, No. 3, pp. 418-430.

Song, M./Fung, T. T./Hu, F. B./Willett, W. C./Longo, V. D./Chan, A. T./Giovannucci, E. L. 2016: Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality, in: JAMA Internal Medicine, Vol. 176, 2016, No. 10, pp. 1453-1463.

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