When it comes to health, protein touts a level playing field because everyone needs protein. Protein’s one of the macronutrients our bodies can’t do without. It supplies energy and structural components necessary for growth—including the building of muscles, new cells and tissues. Protein also increases stamina, supports a healthy weight and immune system and fuels most of the biochemical activities of the body. Likewise, enzymes, antibodies and hormones are made primarily of protein.
The bottom line is that we must have it because proteins catalyze most of the reactions of living cells and control virtually all cellular processes. Not all proteins are created equally, though, so make sure you choose the healthiest, most nutritious protein possible.
While we’re on the topic of protein, it’s important to note that amino acids play a major role as the building block of proteins. In fact, the chemical properties of the amino acids of proteins determine the biological activity of the protein. (Yes; amino acids are that important.) Humans produce 10 of the 20 amino acids, but the other 10 must come from our diet. Even if you’re missing one of the 10 essential amino acids—the ones we can’t make—the body will take protein from other areas, including muscles, to obtain the one amino acid that is needed. Amino acids are not like fats and starches that can be stored for later use; they must be supplied daily by the diet.
The 10 amino acids our bodies produce are: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cystein, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, praline, serine and tyrosine. The essential amino acids are: arginine (required for the young, but not adults), histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionin, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
It’s the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine that are causing some additional interest these days, though. Leucine helps maintain muscle mass and can be found in red meat, poultry, dairy, brown rice, beans and other protein-rich foods. Isoleucine promotes muscle recovery after physical exercise, is needed for the formation of hemoglobin, assists with the regulation of blood sugar and energy levels and helps with blood clot formation. Isoleucine is found in brown rice, cheese and nuts. Valine is used as an energy source in the muscles, preserves the use of glucose, and is required for muscle metabolism, repair and growth of tissue. You’ll find valine in poultry, cottage cheese, brown rice, eggs, avocados, lentils, chickpeas and nuts.
Together, these three amino acids are part of the “branched chain amino acids” or BCAAs—and they may also aid in longevity. A study published in the journal Cell Metabolism indicates that this mix of amino acids is a life extender in animals and may offer the same benefit to humans. Lead researcher Enzo Nisoli of Milan University in Italy says this new study showing the life extending benefits of amino acids supports a “general philosophy of a nutritional approach to disease, aging and problems of energy status.”
The researchers gave the test animals water containing supplemental amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. Those that received the extra amino acids over a period of months increased their normal life span by 12 percent. Additionally, those that received the extra amino acids had an increase in mitochondria (the “power factories” inside cells) in cardiac and skeletal muscles. They also showed better motor coordination, exercise endurance, stronger ability to fight off free radicals and increased activity of SIRT1, a well-known longevity gene.
Interestingly, Nisoli noted that consuming protein/amino acid supplements is different from consuming food proteins with those amino acids because they enter the bloodstream immediately instead of going through digestion first. That may be good news for those who supplement with a healthy protein source.
You see? Healthy proteins have many health perks.