It is much less common for kids living in developed countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe to be deficient in protein. But it is a risk that should be taken seriously, especially if you have a picky eater in your house. Knowing why protein is important is the first step to understanding the potential severity of protein deficiency, especially to growing children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Educating yourself on which foods are high in protein as well as how much protein is needed during different life stages will help you prevent protein deficiency from being an issue in your family’s home.

There are many reasons why protein is important to a person’s diet.

  • The body uses protein to make antibodies, which are important for a strong immune system.
  • Protein is necessary for the production of enzymes. Enzymes are the chemicals that break down foods and enable cells to complete chemical reactions in a timely manner.
  • DNA/RNA synthesis is not possible without certain amino acids that make up proteins.
  • It is important for the repair of skin, organ and other tissues and cells, including hair. It is also important for maintaining fluid balance in the blood, and for properly functioning enzymes and hormones. In fact, enzymes and hormones ARE proteins.
  • Higher amounts of protein are required when a person is sick or recovering from an illness. Also, when a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding, protein requirements are increased. There is also an increased need for high quality protein when there is damage to the body cells, such as post-op recovery and healing after bones are broken.
  • Protein makes up 20-30% of muscle, 50% of bones, 20-30% of the liver, 30% of blood, and a substantial percentage of skin and hair.

A good example of the importance of protein AND iron is Hemoglobin. 

Hemoglobin is the protein in blood responsible for carrying oxygen throughout your body.

Note also that a hemoglobin molecule also contains an iron atom.

So, if there is not enough iron or protein in the diet, there will be insufficient hemoglobin. This means the ability of the blood to circulate oxygen throughout the body will be depleted. Thus, both Iron and protein are important for healthy blood and a healthy person.

Proteins are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of life.

Amino acids are necessary to build healthy muscles, and for proper nerve function.

If there is a protein deficiency in the diet, there could be:

Stunted growth

Poor muscle mass

Edema (water retention in cells)

Thin and fragile hair

Extreme cases of Protein Malnutrition are called “Kwashiorkor”

Difference Between Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids.

Essential amino acids have to be eaten through foods in your diet, and non-essential amino acids do not.

The following are the eight essential amino acids that must be taken in through the diet.

Tryptophan is a precursor to the important neurotransmitter serotonin. It has been shown to help some migraine sufferers who get what are known as “serotonin headaches,” though evidence is conflicting. Food sources include beef, turkey, chicken, flax seeds, almonds, eggs, and English walnuts.

Tyrosine is important for making sure the brain is producing adequate amounts of the feel-good neurotransmitters L-dopa, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenalin). It is also important for proper thyroid function and healthy skin. Foods rich in tyrosine include whole grains, oats, pork, milk, cheese, and other dairy products, soy foods, including tofu, avocadoes and bananas.

Valine is essential for proper organ function, especially the liver and gall bladder. This amino acid is also important for balancing nitrogen levels in the body. Valine deficiency could lead to myelin sheath damage (the myelin sheath protects nerve cells), which in turn could lead to nerve damage. Foods rich in valine include tuna, snapper, cheese, soy protein, chicken, and nuts.

Isoleucine is necessary for the synthesis of hemoglobin, a major constituent of red blood cells. It is also important for stabilizing blood sugar and energy levels. Isoleucine is found alongside valine in many foods, including soy protein, chicken, lentils, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and liver.

4 More Reasons Why Protein is Important

Leucine is important for growth and repair of muscle and bone tissue, and for wound healing. Leucine is also important in helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and for Growth hormone production. The best food sources of leucine are animal protein. The best non-animal protein sources are nuts and seeds.

Lysine is necessary for preventing glycation, which is the sticking together of sugar molecules with protein molecules without proper enzyme regulation. The result is what are known as “glycation end products (AGEs).” It is also important for proper growth, and for keeping cholesterol levels down. Lysine is found in foods such as soy products, chicken and milk.

Methionine is a supplier of sulfur, which is necessary for collagen production. Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the body, and is important for healthy bones, skin, hair and nails. Methionine also has a fat dissolving effect and helps to prevent fatty liver. This amino acid is a building block in the synthesis of other proteins such as carnitine, melatonin, and glutathione.  Food sources of methionine include nuts, eggs, beef, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, and fish. Unfortunately, very little methionine is found in fruits and vegetables.

Phenylalanine: There are two forms of Phenylalanine, L-Phenylalanine and D-Phenylalanine. It is the L form that is an essential amino acid and that must be taken in through the diet. L-Phenylalanine is important for the production of Tyrosine, another essential amino acid, as well as serotonin, norepinephrine and epinephrine, the feel-good neurotransmitters. Food sources include pork, chicken and turkey, yogurt, cheese, and milk.

Phenylketonuria

There is a medical condition known as “Phenylketonuria” or “PKU.” This is a genetic disorder that results in a person not being able to breakdown phenylalanine. This has hampered studies done on the effectiveness of phenylalanine for treatment of certain other disorders including depression.

There is a third category of “Conditionally essential” amino acids that applies to special circumstances. For example, babies born prematurely sometimes cannot synthesize them. The conditionally essential amino acids are Arginine, Cysteine, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline, and Tyrosine. I will talk about this in another post.

Click Here for a free printable handout that shows the recommended minimum protein intake for kids as well as a short list of the best sources of high quality protein.

Here is a yummy recipe that is both high in protein and rich in other important nutrients as well.