Demystifying Macronutrients: Proteins

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In the final instalment of our series on macronutrients, we explore proteins, the substance commonly thought of as healthy. Read on to learn more.

In a series of recent articles, we’ve discussed macronutrients and how not all of them are created equal. Just in case you haven’t read them, here’s quick recap: Macronutrients are the three substances that the body requires lots of in order to operate at a high level. You’ve doubtless heard of them – carbohydrates, fats and proteins – but you may not be familiar with their different subcategories, some of which are essential to great health and fitness and some of which you’d do well to eliminate from your diet.

We’ve covered carbs and fats in quite a bit of detail, but this article will focus on proteins. Widely considered to be the ‘healthy’ macronutrient, protein is the staple of many different diets that all claim to promote weight loss and muscle gain. While the substance is indeed very important – it helps the body with growth, tissue repair, immunity and enzyme production – there’s a bit more to it.

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of protein, discover what it is, and how to incorporate the substance into your diet for best results next time you hit the gym.

Amino acids give proteins their myriad health benefits.

Defining dietary protein

One of the troubles with protein is that it’s quite a bit harder to visualise than other macronutrients. We can all picture the consistency of basic fat, and know that carbs come in three basic varieties, but if you were asked to draw protein, where would you start? Considering that the nutrient should make up between 10 and 30 per cent of your diet, that’s quite a significant knowledge gap to have, especially if you’re looking to get fit with regular exercise and a balanced diet.

Let’s break it down. Proteins are basically long chains of amino acids (the so-called ‘building blocks’ of the body), connected by chemical bonds and contorted into all sorts of interesting shapes. It is these amino acids that give proteins their myriad health benefits and that help the body with everything from hair growth to hormonal function. There are 20 different amino acids that the human body needs, and nine of these (plus one for younger children) are essential and cannot be produced by our systems alone. The arrangement of amino acids will determine the type of protein, meaning that just like fat and carbs, there are a few types to consider.

There are many different sources and types of protein.

How to eat protein

So there are 10 different amino acids that we need from proteins, does that mean there are 10 proteins we have to work into our diets? Not quite, but there are many types of protein (the number is in the millions), and all of them are slightly different in terms of their amino acid makeup. What you’ll want to work into your diet is what’s known as ‘complete’ proteins which contain all of the essential amino acids that your body needs. The best place to get these is from animal sources, whereas vegetable proteins are often ‘incomplete’ and lack one or more of the nine essential acids.

Don’t fret if you’re vegetarian though, a balanced diet of different types of proteins from sources like grains and beans as well as vegetable will ensure you get a healthy balance of all the nutrients that you need.

With so many benefits to be gleaned from protein, why don’t we eat more of it? Well, there are plenty of diets that suggest doing this, but it’s not always the best way to get healthy. The human body can only use so much protein, and excess amounts will simply be transformed into calories, resulting in weight gain and potentially health issues. For best results, pursue a healthy balance and compliment your diet with a mix of cardio and muscle workouts.

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