Thursday, 22 November 2012

Why is protein important?

I have been asked specific questions about the macro nutrients I outlined in earlier posts. There seems to be some confusion about their specific function and questions about their necessity in our diet. So I'd like to address each macro nutrient with its own personal post. I'll start with protein because without it we are nothing. 
I would also like to make people aware that this blog is intended to raise people's awareness about the body, how it works and why it fails. The posts are a simplification of some complicated material. There is a lot more to each subject than this blog explains. However with the intention of keeping it simple some of the more complicated interactions need to be pushed to the side. 

Proteins are most notably known as being the building blocks of the body. This is true, however they have many more very important functions too. We can not ingest the proteins that we eat because these would present in our bodies as foreign proteins and our immune cells (our bodies army) would go to war with them, this battle would continue until either one of us was dead. If this event took place at every meal it wouldn't be long before the foreign proteins won the war. 
When we eat proteins our stomach breaks them up into their more simpler component - amino acids. Lots and lots of amino acids tied together make a protein. There are 20  different (food) amino acids in total. Our liver has a unique way of using any protein source to make all the amino acids EXCEPT 9, which are know as "essential amino acids". Essential amino acids means we must eat proteins which are constructed with these amino acids otherwise we can not build the structures correctly. And therefore some structures will be weak or dysfunctional. 
Of the 3 macro nutrients I would suggest that protein is the one we care the least about but is perhaps the one we should care about the most. I think this strange lack of obsession is derived because of its apparent inability to alter weight or body fat. As I explained in earlier posts proteins are not converted to fat and are not used as an energy source so their direct role in weight control is not very much. The majority of people in the western world want to shed a a few kilos "quickly" and this involves obsessing over carbs and fats and ignoring the uber super role of proteins. 
Proteins are used to build structures in the body, to make enzymes (these make things happen), to carry stuff (iron, calcium, magnesium and lots more) around in the blood, to regulate osmolarity (make sure you don't have too much or too little water in you body) and to stick molecules together. 
Proteins make up about 50% of your dry body weight, so are they important? I would suggest "very important. " Proteins provide a rigidity and form to our muscular system. The amount of proteins (actin and myosin) in a muscle will determine it's strength. The more protein you pack in the stronger the muscle becomes. That's how weight training works, you can not grow new muscle cells (the amount you are born with can never increase) but you can pack more and more proteins in which makes them bigger and more firm. 
Picture 3 pop cans lined up. One is empty, the second is half full (half empty if you are a pessimist) and the third is full and unopened. Now you have a cavity block and you want to place in on top of one of these pop cans! Which one do you think is more likely to hold the cavity block? The full unopened one right? I'd imagine the other two would crumble under the weight of the block. Well think of your muscles as being similar. If you pack them up with proteins by doing resistance training and eating good protein they become more like a full pop can. If you spend all day obsessing over carbs and fats, eating rice cakes and drinking hot water, you'll probably lose some weight, have very weak muscles (unable to run very far or very fast), which means a very slow metabolism and therefore it will be impossible to maintain weight loss. 
Weak muscles means you'll have poor performance when running, it will become more and more difficult to reach your goals and exceed your previous times. Muscles that are low on proteins feel like they have small bubbles inside them when you rub your thumb longitudinally along it's fibres (bicep muscle - rub thumb in a direction from elbow to shoulder). 
You will also be susceptible to infections (proteins have a key role in immunity) and sickness. One of the functions of the liver is to make little proteins (soldiers)that can fight and kill bacteria and viruses. If you don't ingest enough amino-acids or the correct types you run the risk of losing the battle because you are fielding a small inequipt army.  
You may struggle with dehydration or overheating when running, causing head aches because proteins regulate water levels in our bodies. You may also have increased demands on your heart  as a result of low blood pressure, causing dizziness, shortness of breath and  many other symptoms. You may have problems digesting food (poor enzymes) leading to tiredness and anaemia. Enzymes are tiny proteins with special capabilities that enable them to speed up or slow down chemical reactions. Poor enzymes means food can not get ingested before its excreeted and you end up with malnutrition symptoms. Another reason why calorie counting is USELESS!
The list is endless and the consequences of inappropriate protein intake can not be stressed enough. 
Runners who do not intake the correct proteins in the right amounts are always going to struggle with minor/major reoccurring injuries, low energy, dizziness, recurrent infections and (perhaps worst of all for a runner) poor performance. 
By stressing the muscles with resistance training 1-2 times per week as part of your running regime you will increase your muscle tone and improve your performance. Taking time to observe food labels for protein content and it's utilisation will enable you to intake the correct amounts of proteins per day. It is recommended that we eat no more than 10% of our total daily calorific intake from protein sources. Plant protein sources will be far healthier than animal sources. 
You know your body, you know what to do! 

The next entry will be similar to this but looking at carbohydrates.