Our Guide to Protein
You *may* have noticed that here at Ancient + Brave, we’re big fans of amino acids. So much so, many of our products are centred around key amino acid combinations - including collagen. What’s the big deal? Ok, let us get our geek on…
Amino acids are simply the building blocks of protein. When most people think of protein, they think about building muscle, working out and bulking up - and yet there’s so much more to protein than merely muscle (although that is important too - hold that thought.)
Protein is essential for virtually every one of your cellular functions - it’s good to think about them as the ‘working molecules’ we need to live. Literally the building blocks of life, protein provides us with structure; our bones, ligaments, tendons, brain, liver, skin, fingernails - all need protein. The enzymes that catalyse reactions, help us digest foods and control our metabolism - are proteins. Our immune system uses proteins as antibodies to help defend us from infection. The neurotransmitters which are responsible for everything from our mood to our sleep - you guessed it - are proteins.
So, you can probably agree that proteins are pretty important - not just for survival but if we want to live optimally, we need enough through our diet. To really understand protein, we need to first know that proteins are built from chains of amino acids, of which there are many, but the human body requires around 20 different types.
Essential amino acids are exactly as they sound - there are 9 of these and they’re essential to us because our bodies can’t create them, so we have to get them through the food we eat. We need a daily supply of these and a constant topping up to keep our amino acid pool full for our body to take what it needs for all the different body systems.
We also have ‘nonessential’ amino acids which (as you’ve probably guessed) our body produces some amounts all on its own, although we also need to obtain some through food too to get to optimal levels. Now we’re getting technical. There are also some ‘conditionally essential’ amino acids. These are essential only within certain times of our lives or in special circumstances, for example during pregnancy more of the amino acid glycine is needed through our diet and so glycine becomes conditionally essential in this time.
Whichever category these fall into, each amino acid does something different for the human body, so we require the full spectrum of them in differing amounts. If you are getting your protein intake right, you’ll be checking off all the boxes in terms of the amino acids in all the amounts your body needs. Let's take a look at a few of the protein players;
Tryptophan is a great essential amino acid to get to know. As well as other functions, tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin (our happy, content hormone) and melatonin (our sleepy hormone). Getting enough of this is key for the regulation of your appetite, sleep, and mood (1). Want to learn more about nutrition and sleep? Check out our blog here (LINK TO SLEEP BLOG)
Lysine plays a large role in creating other proteins the body needs. It’s currently making waves in the supplement world for its role in supporting the immune system - some small studies show lysine potentially acting as an antiviral by balancing arginine (another amino acid) and blocking viral replication; possibly speeding up the time your body responds to infection (2). Lysine is also responsible for the proteins in your connective tissues and is instrumental in collagen formation (and you know how much we love collagen).
Leucine is another essential amino acid and is often categorised as a Branch Chain Amino Acid or BCAA because of the way it looks. This one is probably best known for its role in building and repairing muscle. It also modulates the blood sugar balancing hormone insulin and increases your fat burning ability. Leucine is extra important as we age and is one of the reasons it is important to increase your protein intake (in terms of quantity and quality) as you get older (3).
Methionine - The detoxification hero, this amino acid helps to create cysteine, which leads to the master antioxidant in our body; Glutathione. It plays a vital role in our metabolism and is responsible for making creatine (important for muscle growth, energy levels and brain function) and carnitine. Methionine is also necessary for the absorption of zinc and selenium, minerals that are vital to your overall health.
Glycine is one of the most widespread aminos and has key roles in almost every system in the body. Although the body can make small amounts itself, because of the numerous benefits most people would be at an advantage from having more in their diet. A few of these roles include; boosting mental performance and memory, improving quality of sleep, building the lining of our digestive tract, stabilising blood sugars, lowering inflammation and improving energy levels (4). Glycine is highly concentrated in the protein collagen (the most abundant protein in the human body and one of the obsessions here at Ancient + Brave).
Glycine is currently being researched for use in lowering symptoms in a range of conditions from arthritis, insomnia, diabetes, intestinal permeability (leaky gut), chronic fatigue syndrome and even some cancers (5,6)
Proline is another of the Big 3 amino acids found in collagen and plays a role in healthy skin, healing and repairing as well as preventing joint pain. Along this line, it also supports digestive health and further a field contributes to a healthy metabolism and fights inflammation.
Arginine - not categorised as essential per se (as the body does make some) but considered some-what essential due to its high ranking importance for many functions. Arginine is well known for its ability to improve blood flow and circulation giving benefits to key organs such as optimising heart and brain health. Because of its efficacy in increasing circulation, arginine supplementation and food sources may need to be reduced if you are suffering from cold sores. Some evidence shows the herpes simplex virus which causes cold sores requires arginine to replicate and thrive in your body. Balancing this out with the antiviral effects of Lysine can also be helpful (7)
Arginine is however usually useful and is also believed to enhance stamina, strength and physical performance thanks to how it stimulates the production of hormones like Human Growth Hormone as well as increasing (drumroll..) collagen.
Alanine is a key player in collagen formation too but also our nervous system health. It is used to break down tryptophan and vitamin B-6, both valuable for our mood and sleep. It strengthens the immune system, is a source of energy for muscle and helps the body convert sugar (glucose) into energy.
Muscle needs a PR makeover
When it comes to body composition, fat or fat loss often gets the most focus. However, muscle is an underrated organ in terms of all the things it can actually do for us. Muscle is much more than powering locomotion or just for people who love the gym to think about - it is at the core of your metabolism. Healthy, strong muscles help to regulate your blood sugars and determine how your body uses carbohydrates and fats. Muscle is also an endocrine (hormonal) organ and is linked to your longevity.
Dr Gabrielle Lyon has coined the term Muscle-Centric Medicine which argues that as a society we are struggling with weight and other health issues because we are ‘under muscled’. She describes muscle as a metabolic sink and also our amino acid reservoir where the body can draw upon under times of stress and illness to protect key organs such as the liver, kidney and brain.(8)
Muscle doesn’t necessarily weigh more than fat (a pound of muscle is the same as a pound of fat) however, it is more densely packed so takes up less room than fat does. Muscle is also significantly more vascular (meaning it has a better blood supply) than fat which increases its benefits; burning more calories at rest and transporting important nutrients around the body.
Just like collagen depletes as we age - so does muscle (unless we work at keeping it). The average person starts losing muscle as early 25 years old. After around 40, muscle loss increases to around 8 percent per decade, and then accelerates to 15 percent after age 70.
Muscle loss doesn’t just have a huge impact on our metabolism and where we start to distribute our body fat, but may also cause physical and cognitive decline. We now know that the more muscle density you have and how much you use these muscles, determine the size and number of your mitochondria (the energy factories in our cells). The more mitochondria you have, the more energy you’ll be able to produce - and visa versa; low muscle strength coupled with low physical capacity results in lower mitochondrial function.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though; by putting muscle health, movement, protein + plant intake (as well as some other healthy habits) at the forefront of your mind, you can ensure that you keep a healthy amount of muscle and the benefits it comes with, throughout your lifetime.
How much protein you need depends on YOU
The amount of protein you need personally completely depends on a few factors; your age, health status, activity, goals and where you source your protein. Whilst past recommendations suggest 0.8 or 1g per kg of yor body weight daily as a good predictor, more recent panels recommend much higher doses of 1.2 to 2g/kg and even higher for elderly adults or those who are extremely active or in physical training.
What does this look like in real life? Aiming for around 25-30g of protein per meal, three times a day is a good start. You may need to tweak these amounts dependent on the above factors mentioned. However, when it comes to eating protein, there are some sources which have more of those important amino acids in smaller, more dense portions, with a better balance of the individual amino acids, than others.
Complete VS incomplete proteins
Sources of protein are considered to be ‘complete’ or of higher quality when they contain all nine of the essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. Animal products such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs all contain the essential amino acids and therefore are considered ‘complete’.
Most plant sources of protein are often too low in certain essential amino acids or missing one or more of them. Because of this, they are considered to be incomplete - however there are some exceptions in the plant protein world. Quinoa, tofu, buckwheat, amaranth and hemp are considered complete plant proteins.
This is not to say that every time you eat protein it must be complete. Plant proteins, whether or not they are incomplete, still have extremely valuable nutrients beyond amino acids. On top of this, being mindful of using plant proteins regularly also has an impact on the health of our planet too. You can manage to get enough of each essential amino acid throughout the day by eating a varied and considered diet, combining proteins from different sources. Those following a more ‘plant based’ diet may well need to focus on this more than others, as protein isn’t quite as concentrated in plants compared to animal based sources.
Not all proteins are created equal
Where it becomes a bit more nuanced and tricky is the idea that when we’re looking at a portion of protein, we’re looking at the protein within the food. You see, when we eat foods for their protein content, we also eat everything that comes alongside it. This can be carbohydrates, fibres, different fats and more: it’s helpful to think about what the protein is packaged with. This isn’t a good or bad thing, but something else to be aware of, especially when you are trying to get a good balance of over all macros (proteins, fats and carbs). For example to get 30g of protein from yogurt, you can’t just eat 30g of yogurt but instead need about 250g or around 1 cup to get your portion of protein. This is because yogurt also contains fat, water and plenty of vitamins and minerals too.
Let’s take a look at a few sources of protein, how much you get and a couple of ideas of what they come packaged with;
As you can see, you have to eat a lot more (by volume/weight) of plant-based foods to get the same amount of protein as you would from most animal sources. The plant-based foods contain a smaller proportion of actual protein and the rest is carbohydrate, fat or both. More carbs and fat is not generally a problem in itself and can sometimes be beneficial if you are lacking in these nutrients or fibre. However, those trying to lose weight or being conscious of their carb intake particularly, should also be aware of the other nutrients their protein is packaged with. What can help is knowing how much protein you are potentially consuming and obtaining those extra aminos from other sources lower in those extra macros, such as our vegan collagen range which contains plant based collagen specific amino acids.
Blood sugar balancing
Protein is also satiating. Ever eaten a large meal and wondered how you could possibly be hungry again an hour later? Chances are it didn't have quite enough protein in it. Protein takes much longer for the body to digest and breakdown compared to carbohydrates which give us a nice quick release of energy. When you eat a more balanced meal, the protein tends to help stabilise your blood sugars by blunting the absorption of carbohydrates and making you feel fuller for longer.
Top tips for including more protein in your diet
Hopefully you now feel motivated to include enough protein in your day to day diet. Check out our top tips of getting the right amount
- Get your protein from a variety of sources to help you hit the full range of amino acids - animal products have high amounts of concentrated amino acids but we also need to be mindful we’re not going overboard on meat both from a health perspective but also a sustabinability one too. Balance, quality (from sustainable, organic sources) and variety is key.
- Prioritise your protein source - when creating a meal think; 1. What's my protein? 2. Where are my plants? 3. Can I add healthy fats and complex carbs to this?
- Upgrade your breakfast first, it sets you up for a great start to the day. Love avo on toast? Smash in some beans, feta or chickpeas or add some smoked salmon for added protein. Can you swap cereal for oats made with protein powder and nut butter? Also adding collagen peptides to your morning coffee or tea for a super easy protein boost!
- Get to know the little additions - topping any meal with hemp seeds, nuts, roasted chickpeas, a boiled egg, mixed seeds, full fat greek yogurt or tofu croutons
- Smoothies are a great option for getting in extra protein - have it for breakfast or your afternoon snack and add a good quality protein or collagen powder (or both!) - Our vegan range are perfect for high protein smoothies!
- Busy day? You can keep a collagen sachet handy just like you would keep a hair tie or spare pen in your bag for when you need to add more protein to a meal or as a healthier snack choice at work
- Make some clever swaps; rather than starting from scratch find foods that make an easy swap for more protein and fibre. For example swapping out couscous (mainly wheat) for quinoa or lentils.
Finally, nutrition alone is not the answer to optimising your health and feeling your best (although it is high on the list!). Nutrition provides the puzzle pieces for your body, but you need movement and strength training to help put those pieces together and tell your body where to use it.