Protein and muscles. Muscles and protein. Those two things seem to always be paired together as if all they cared about was each other. But shortchanging protein as just being useful to muscles is doing the nutrient a major disservice. In reality, protein is integral to many components of our body’s physiology and works to keep you healthy beyond maintaining muscle.
Before we take a deeper dive into the ways protein benefits the body, it’s important to understand how bodies utilize dietary protein. When you eat protein, it is broken down into amino acids in several steps, starting in the mouth and ending in the small intestine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and can be strung together in endless combinations to create new, different proteins. DNA found within your cells acts like the “quarterback” of amino acids, instructing them how to combine based on the job they are required to do. Since our bodies are made of hard-working proteins, there are endless ways amino acids from food can be used.
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PROTEIN BENEFITS FOR EVERY BODY
Our bodies are made up of proteins from our head to our toes. While muscles are the most evident and well-known place protein is at work, there are many more ways it helps you on a daily basis:
DIGESTION AND POST-WORKOUT RECOVERY
Enzymes are facilitators of many of the metabolic functions that happen around the body. They work to build, break apart and rearrange amino acids related to digestion, protein creation or tissue building.
TRANSPORTS VITAL BODY COMPOUNDS
There are many compounds in the body that work to transport substances from place to place and all are made of proteins. Perhaps the most well-known example is hemoglobin in the blood, which transports life-giving oxygen and lipoproteins, which enables the transport of lipid substances in the watery blood.
BOOSTS IMMUNE SYSTEM
The body has an amazing immune system designed to fight infection and disease. The antibodies in the immune system are made of protein and integral to capturing and defending against viruses. Adequate dietary protein is required to maintain a robust army of antibodies, which can be compromised in the absence of protein or low total calorie intake.
CONTROLS APPETITE AND KEEPS YOU SATISFIED LONGER
Research has shown that a higher-protein meal or snack helps to reduce hunger and extend the feeling of satiety. Specifically, a higher dose of protein (starting at 30 grams) has been shown to suppress the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin early on in a meal, as well increasing the satiety hormone CCK. This translates to you feeling satisfied more quickly in a meal.
LINKED TO BETTER GUT HEALTH
Preliminary research suggests protein — particularly branched chain amino acids — might play a role in the health of intestinal bacteria. This does not necessarily mean a high-protein diet benefits your gut health, but there are definitely protein-derived components of the microbiome.
Written by Jenna Braddock, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in sports nutrition. She is a mom to two little boys and wife to a football coach. She shares real-life strategies for better health and doable, delicious recipes on her site Make Healthy Easy. She is active on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.