Protein is one of those essential six nutrients that we're all a little bit confused about. We know we need protein to build muscle mass, but many of us are confused about how much and what type of protein is best. Just as there are different types of fat and carbohydrates, there is a wide variety of protein, but they are sorted into two primary categories: animal protein and plant-based protein.
We're taught to believe that protein derived from animal sources is a better, more effective source of protein than plant-based protein (flesh = power). This is a bit misleading and not entirely true. In this article, we'll take a look at how your body uses both and what the best overall sources are for diets that include and exclude meat.
First, let's start with the role of protein.
Why Do We Need Protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients, along with fat and carbohydrates. Macro simply means we need a lot of it. When most of us think of protein, we have the idea that its role is to build and repair body tissues, primarily muscles, to make them stronger, denser, and healthier. All our cells and tissues contain protein, so it's an essential nutrient for the growth, repair, maintenance, and rejuvenation of our body tissues.
But protein has numerous structural and functional elements that are fundamental to overall health and wellness. For example, it's instrumental in a wide range of metabolic interactions, it coordinates bodily functions, comprises our structural framework, and maintains a balance of fluids and pH.
The Surprising, Less Well-Known Role of Protein
Protein plays a major role in mental health. Surprising, right? But not so once we consider the relation between protein and the nervous system. Neurotransmitters are the body's chemical messengers. They're composed of proteins and amino acids, and they travel across synapses to target neurons, carrying information and instructions.
For that reason, protein has major neurological consequences. It's a critical nutrient for maintaining an optimal production of neurotransmitters and keeping them firing off the way they're supposed to. It impacts our memory, focus, and emotional stability. That's because it plays a vital role in the production of important neurotransmitters such as GABA, choline, serotonin, and dopamine.
It's easy to get lost in these terms, so we'll break down their basic meaning:
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They synthesize hormones and neurotransmitters.
GABA is a naturally-occurring amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter. It blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain, and low levels may be linked to mood disorders, such as anxiety (1).
Choline is a "conditionally essential" amino acid, meaning it's essential in certain cases, such as in the presence of illness or stress. It helps regulate memory, mood, and muscle control, among many other functions (2).
Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells from the amino acid tryptophan, and it's found primarily in the digestive system (chewing actually supports serotonin secretion, so always chew your food well!). Low levels may cause mood disorders, and because it's a precursor for melatonin, it impacts sleep quality too.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, memory, attention, and regulating body movements. You may recognize the root word "dope" in here to signify the affect certain drugs have on the brain's pleasure center.
The Happy Nutrient
Notice a recurring theme in those four neurotransmitters? That's right, mood. What this essentially tells us is that protein is a requirement for optimal mental health. Serotonin, for instance, follows an interesting and important pathway in our nervous system:
The amino acid tryptophan converts into 5 hydroxytryptophan (also known as 5-HTP), which converts to serotonin, which converts to melatonin, which may convert to DMT, coined our "spirit molecule" (though evidence is largely speculative).
Interesting stuff, right? You don't have to be a science guy to acknowledge and appreciate that consuming protein can actually make us happier.
But before you grill up your next steak, we're going to fracture a common myth that meat is the better protein.
The amino acid tryptophan, which we've learned converts into the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, is heat volatile. That means it loses its potency when exposed to heat. Since meat must be cooked (in most cases), consuming meat-based sources of protein means our bodies can't assimilate the right amino acids that create a healthy balance of neurotransmitters. This may lead to a serotonin deficiency.
That's why the best sources of protein are raw.
That doesn't mean you have to eat raw eggs and steak tartar to get an optimal level of protein. Rather, superfoods can step in where meat fails to deliver.
Clean, undamaged sources of superfood protein include: goji berries, cacao (raw, unprocessed cocoa), chlorella, spirulina, chia seeds, maca, hemp seeds, hemp powder, soaked nuts and seeds, and more. Cacao is actually one of the best sources of tryptophan on the planet, and spirulina is the number one source of bioavailable protein in the world.
All these nutrient-dense foods can help build muscle, focus, concentration, deliver greater energy, and amplify cognition as well as or more effectively than cooked or animal-based proteins. They also offer a diversity of nutrients so that you get the full spectrum of amino acids.
Strong, Smiling & Balanced
Sounds like what we're all aiming for, doesn't it? Check your daily protein intake. Are you getting a sufficient amount of optimal protein? That is, clean, raw, unprocessed protein? If not, consider adding a few of those superfoods to your diet. If you're unsure of where to start, add some raw cacao powder and spirulina to a fruit smoothie and toss some hulled hemp seeds on top for texture and an added protein kick. You don't have to get too creative. Rather, a bit of curiosity and courage to try out some otherwise unfamiliar foods goes a long way.
Protein even helps stabilize our blood sugar, and is especially important for people with hypoglycemia or "diabesity." It helps slow digestion, prevents those post-meal blood sugar spikes, and increases feelings of fullness.
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From our kitchen to yours, we wish you strong, happy, and protein-rich encounters in the kitchen!