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The Building Blocks of Life

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are out, recommending that teen boys and adult men eat less meat, poultry, and eggs and eat more vegetables. Many of us could likely benefit from this advice since most Americans eat twice as much protein than we actually need.

Like carbohydrates and fat, protein is an essential macro-nutrient, meaning that our bodies require it in large amounts. Protein is as necessary to us as the air we breathe. Yet, it’s misunderstood by many.

Here’s what you need to know about this life-sustaining nutrient.

Proteins are complex chemical compounds made up of different concentrations and combinations of amino acids, often referred to as the “building blocks of life,” nitrogen, carbon and more.

Life would not exist without proteins. More specifically, proteins and amino acids are important because they do all of the following and more:

  • Build, maintain and repair body tissues, organs and muscles
  • Help cells communicate with one another in the form of hormones and cytokines
  • Make up the immune system and promote wound healing
  • Transport nutrients and oxygen throughout the body (e.g. hemoglobin)
  • Remove waste from the body
  • Allow muscles to contract

Given all of the important roles proteins play in the body, it’s no surprise that a loss of more than roughly one-third of body protein causes losses in muscle strength responsible for breathing, immune function and organ function. Ultimately, these reductions would lead to death.

Good food sources of protein.

High protein foods include meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Plant-based proteins are healthier for us and for the environment and should make up the bulk of our intake.

Contrary to popular belief, eating excessive amounts of protein from food and supplements is not necessary to build muscle. Sadly, you will not look like a body builder by devouring protein shakes. Plus, protein shakes are often full of questionable additives that can cause a variety of unwelcome gastrointestinal side effects.

What’s an eater to do?

Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds with or without small amounts of everything else. If you feel like eating plants is too tough on your gastrointestinal tract then check out my article, “How to eat plant foods in spite of GI issues.”

Colleen Webb is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified LEAP Therapist (CLT) who specializes in providingpersonalized nutrition counseling to people with gastrointestinal conditions.

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