Protein is one of the most important nutrients that we consume. We are told to have protein after a workout, that it is essential to a balanced meal, and that we need protein to build and maintain muscle. But why do we really need protein? What do our bodies do with protein rich foods like chocho? If you don't want to build muscle, do you even need protein?
First, let's look at what protein is. Proteins are molecules made from twenty-plus smaller building blocks called amino acids, which are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen or sulfur. These amino acids are held together by peptide bonds (the bond created when different parts of two amino acids bond together). Our bodies make some amino acids, but others such as histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, are considered essential meaning that they must come from food because we do not produce them.
Whether consumed via food or produced ourselves, protein is found throughout the body. Protein helps to make up our muscles, bones, skin, hair, and body tissue. It also makes up the enzymes that fuel important chemical reactions. According to an article published by Harvard, “at least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.” So, everyone regardless of fitness goals needs protein daily to keep your body functioning properly.
Not all protein sources are created equal. Some protein sources are incomplete, meaning that they do not contain all nine essential amino acids. Most beans are incomplete proteins, which is why they are often eaten with rice (the two amino acid profiles complement each other and create a complete protein). Plant based sources of complete protein include quinoa, tofu, and chocho. Meat is another option for a complete protein. However, meat may not be the best option for you or the planet. Research indicates that diets that replace red meat with healthy plant protein options can lead to decreases in risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and that diets higher in plant protein can result in lower levels of cholesterol (cite). And producing meat produces more CO2 and uses more water and resources than producing plant protein, so switching to plant protein can reduce your climate footprint.
Beyond complete vs incomplete and plant vs animal, there are also different ways to process protein extracts for protein powders and supplements which may impact their nutritional benefits. Extracts and isolates may have some nutrients stripped from them and create lots of waste through their extreme processing. Chocho is an amazing source of complete, plant based protein, that is non isolated or extracted as to preserve all of the health benefits and nutrition.
Once you have identified your protein source and eaten it (maybe a chocho smoothie for breakfast) what happens? Well, your digestion starts in your mouth. As you chew your food (or drink your smoothie) two enzymes found in saliva, amylase and lipase break down carbohydrates and fats. Protein on the other hand begins to break down in your stomach, when protease enzymes break the peptide bonds that hold the amino acids together, creating smaller chains of amino acids. Once the protein has broken down, these smaller amino acid chains move into your small intestine. Simultaneously, your pancreas releases enzymes and a bicarbonate buffer that helps to reduce the acidity of digested food, which allows more enzymes to further breakdown the amino acid chains into individual amino acids (cite) (cite).
Once the individual amino acids are in your small intestine, they are transported through intestinal cells to the blood via a special transport protein. Once in the blood, amino acids are transported to the liver. The liver is like a home-base for amino acids and other macronutrients and from the liver amino acids some are distributed to appropriate places throughout the body. Interestingly, about 50-65% of proteins remain in the liver and are used for a variety of purposes by your body, including to help your own cells make proteins. The amino acids that do not stay in the liver are transported around the body to be used by other cells. It is important that the liver is home base, because amino acids contain nitrogen and as some amino acids are further broken down in the liver they produce nitrogen containing ammonia. As you may know, ammonia is toxic, so the liver (being the amazing detoxifying organ) helps our body to rid itself of this toxic byproduct (cite).
One really interesting fact about protein is that your body can recycle amino acids to make new proteins to meet your body's needs. This happens in a process called protein turnover, in which proteins are broken down into amino acids and put in a “pool” of amino acids. You can think of this as a recycling center. When new proteins are needed for a body function or when amino acids are needed to produce biological molecules such as DNA, amino acids are drawn from this recycling center to be reused and repurposed. In fact, every day over 250 grams of protein in your body are broken down into amino acids and 250 grams of new proteins are built.
The amazing thing about protein recycling is that it means you don't have to always consume complete proteins. Your body can readjust amino acids to meet its needs, so you don't need to always pair rice with beans or consume animal protein to get the necessary amino acids. When you don't consume enough protein to keep this “pool” full, your body may begin to fill the pool with amino acids from proteins in your muscles and other body tissues. It is important to consume enough protein to avoid this muscular breakdown and to keep your recycling center up and running (cite).
Your protein source has been broken down and the amino acids have been used to create the proteins your body needs, so what do these proteins do? The proteins may go to your hair and nails, which are mostly made of protein, or to repair and build tissues, to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Maybe the proteins will go to build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood (cite). Basically, proteins are needed for a ton of different processes in your body and consuming protein daily helps to ensure that you have enough amino acids in your body to meet your daily needs whether that be to grow your hair, nails or muscles, or to repair your skin after a cut or a surgery.
THE BOTTOM LINE//
So, why do we really need protein? What do our bodies do with protein rich foods like chocho? Our bodies break down proteins from sources like chocho into amino acids, which are used to help create new proteins and keep our bodies functioning properly. As you can see, protein is needed for much more than just muscle growth. When a food has more protein, or is more protein rich, you are getting more amino acids which is important to keep your amino acid recycling center up and running.
And remember, not all proteins are created equal and some, such as red meat, may have negative health impacts for some people. This is why chocho is so amazing- it is one of the most protein dense sources of plant protein, and is a complete protein, meaning you get tons of amino acids (all of the essential ones and even some non-essential ones) to fuel your body and keep you strong and healthy.