Delving into the world of fitness and nutrition, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by talk of nutrients. The one you inevitably end up hearing about is “protein”.
But what is it? You’ve probably heard or read about it as a big part of building muscle, but there are some other important and often-overlooked aspects of the different protein sources that you may not know.
Let’s start with the basics…
What is protein?
Proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats are macronutrients – the main components of our diet and that our bodies require in relatively large amounts for normal function and good health. Vitamins and minerals are also important parts of the puzzle, but these are needed in much smaller quantities, which is why we refer to them as micronutrients.
Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, strung together in chains. There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential because our bodies cannot produce them naturally. These essential amino acids must be obtained through diet.
Each source of protein has a different arrangement of hundreds or even thousands of amino acids. During digestion, our bodies break down the protein molecules then put them back together to create new and different proteins based on what our systems need.
When we consume proteins that have a similar amino arrangement to those in our own body, we synthesize that protein very efficiently. Animal-based proteins, not surprisingly, are much more similar to our protein structure than plant-based proteins, so our body is able to break them down more readily and rapidly. This is where the concept of protein “quality” comes into play — the more efficient a protein can be broken down, the higher “quality” we assume the protein is.
Quality does not equal good health
Quality equates to the efficiency with which food proteins are used to promote growth. And this would be all well and good if the most efficient proteins also equaled the greatest health. But this is just not the case. In fact, there have been a number of epidemiological studies and clinical research that have shown exactly the opposite to be true, most notably, the China Study.
A massive collaboration between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, the China Study is the most comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle and disease that has ever been conducted in the history of biomedical research. Over the course of the intensive study, researchers surveyed a wide range of diseases and diet and lifestyle factors across rural China and Taiwan, and eventually produced more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between various dietary factors and disease.
The study also showed that even relatively small intakes of animal-based foods were associated with adverse effects. And what’s more, the study revealed that the source of animal protein didn’t matter. Whether it came from a lean pork chop, egg whites, or a glass of whole milk, the results were all the same.