The word protein is derived from the Greek word ‘proteios’, meaning ‘primary’ or of prime importance. This is fitting, since protein is the most plentiful component within the human body after water, accounting for approximately 18% of its make-up. The body manufactures proteins to form a number of body structures including hair, muscles, nails, tendons, and ligaments. Proteins can also function as enzymes and hormones. The building blocks of all proteins are molecules known as amino acids.
Within the body there is a constant turnover of protein, as it is broken down into amino acids and rebuilt into new proteins, allowing continual growth, healing, and internal defence. Some amino acids can be manufactured within the body, others need to be obtained through the diet, and these are known as ‘Essential Amino Acids’.
It is clear to see that with protein playing such a primary role within the body it is vital that the diet contains sufficient provision of these 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) in order to adequately support health. Animal products, such as meat, fish, poultry and dairy provide all 9 EAAs and so represent a complete protein. Plant foods lack one or more of the EAAs and so need to be eaten in combination in order to provide a complete protein. For example, legumes provide a good source of most of the amino acids, but are low in Tryptophan and Methionine. However, grains and seeds contain these essential amino acids, so when eaten in combination with legumes, a complete protein is available. This is fairly easy to achieve within meals, serving beans or lentils on a bed of whole grain rice or serving humus (chickpeas and sesame seeds) with whole grain soda bread or oatcakes.
For anyone wating to support their health nutritionally it is important to include protein. Protein also plays an important role in helping to encourage good blood sugar balance. When food is eaten it is digested and absorbed into the blood stream to take glucose to the body’s cells. Carbohydrate foods such as sugars and refined grains are broken down very quickly, releasing a high amount of glucose into the blood stream.
The pancreas then has to produce an increased level of insulin to get the glucose into the body’s cells where it can be used for energy. The level of glucose in the blood then drops too low, (see the pale blue line above), leaving the individual tired, irritable, hungry, potentially suffering headaches and fatigue. Another intake of high carbohydrates brings an immediate lift, as glucose rapidly is absorbed into the blood stream again.
This constant yo-yo affect of peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in the blood puts a strain on the pancreas and the output of insulin in the long-term, as well as leading to many symptoms, as mentioned, in the short-term. However, eating protein foods together with unrefined carbohydrates, causes a more gradual release of glucose into the blood stream, (see the dark blue line above), providing a steady source of energy and taking the pressure off the pancreas. If someone needs to support their blood sugar levels I will often suggest that they include protein at each meal and a small amount of extra protein between meals to support a steady and gentle output of glucose into the blood. Adding chopped seeds to breakfast porridge, including humus with a salad at lunch, eating fish or poultry at the evening meal together with a good selection of vegetables, will help ensure that there is a steady release of glucose. Snacking on seeds, natural yoghurt, or seed butter with oat-cakes or gluten free crackers, may help keep the blood sugar levels even between meals.
Over time, including the right nutrients within foods and supplements should help support blood sugar levels in the long-term, but in the meantime, eating sufficient protein with each meal may support a good level output of glucose and so minimise any symptoms related to low blood sugar