Protein is one of the most crucial elements of our diet (though technically all of the main food groups are crucial for us to remain healthy and well); literally it is the ‘building block’ that all of our tissue is made out of and which we need to build muscle, skin and flesh.
Protein is composed of amino acids, which are in turn carbon compounds, and if you’ve ever heard the term ‘carbon based life form’ then you should recognize that this is what we are made of. In a very literal sense you are what you eat with protein, as all the body essentially does is to recycle the meat from animals in order to construct the various parts of the human body.
But in order to get these benefits of protein it is obviously important not only that we eat enough of it, but also that our body actually absorbs it so that it can be used. So how do you maximize that digestibility so that we have as many building blocks as possible to grow and heal wounds?
First of all it is important to choose the very best sources of protein that are going to be the easiest for the body to use. The term for this is ‘bioavailability’ and it’s important to recognize that not all protein was born equal.
As mentioned, protein is formed of amino acids. However not all amino acids are the same, and in fact there are roughly 27 varieties (reports vary and we shouldn’t rule out more being discovered) that we need for our body to function optimally. One form of protein might have just one or two amino acids and this would mean we’d have to eat a lot of other different sources to get the rest, whereas one or two such as egg contain all 27.
Meanwhile protein also varies in its structure. When the body uses protein it will be forming it into the particular structures that are required for human biology. These are particular forms of ‘branched chain amino acids’ meaning that the amino acids are connected in a useful sequence rather than being isolated. The good news is that some of the amino acids available from animal protein sources are already in useful combinations and these ‘BCAAs’ make that protein more bioavailable.
And finally it’s important to know that there is a difference between essential and non-essential amino acids. The non-essential ones are those created by the body which we don’t need to get in our diet, and if we eat too much of both forms of protein all we will end up doing is making it difficult for our body to pick the ‘wheat’ out from the chaff as it were.
All of this creates the amino acid profile and bioavailability of the protein we eat, and it’s important to ensure that your protein is as ‘ready to use’ as possible. The best sources for this are animal sources – quite simply because the protein in animals is already in a similar composition, i.e. it is in the form of muscle and flesh rather than plant matter which is relatively useless for the body.
This is a complicated point. First of all you should recognize that saturated fat – the bad kind that makes up lard and butter and that comes attached to your meat – is bad in the short term for protein digestibility. The reason for this is that fat takes longer to digest than any other food group meaning that it can effectively ‘clog up’ the system and prevent us from digesting what we are currently eating.
Meanwhile though the other kind of fat – unsaturated forms such as essential fatty acids which we can find in fish etc, are highly beneficial for protein absorption and digestion – so it’s a good idea to make sure that we look for lean sources of meat, but also get lots of essential fatty acids such as omega 3.
Of course we can improve protein digestibility by improving our digestion in general. This means making sure to chew our food thoroughly, and to eat slowly and carefully. The more you chew and cut up your protein the easier it will be for the body to make use of it.
This is also another important reason to make sure that you get all your amino acids – as the digestive enzymes responsible for breaking down everything from protein to cake are also made from amino acids. Drinking lots of water can also help (both during the day to increase digestive juices and during the meal to help further break your food down), as can eating little and often (as opposed to ‘rarely and tonnes’).
Our body goes through both ‘anabolic’ and ‘catabolic’ cycles. In the former it is looking around the body for protein to build muscle and repair wounds, while in the latter it is aiming to burn existing fats and sugars to help provide energy. Eating during an ‘anabolic’ cycle can help to improve digestibility of protein then. Good ways to encourage an anabolic state are to go to bed (sleep is an anabolic state), to have a big workout, or to take a hot shower which release growth hormone.