Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 5) - Protein - Proteins Do Important Stuff

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4. Protein

Protein is a critical structural and functional component of the human body, and commonly represents anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of a person’s daily caloric intake. If you have a 2,400-calorie diet and 25 percent of it comes from protein, you’re getting 600 calories, or 150 grams, of that macronutrient.

The ability of the body to properly metabolize protein foods diminishes at an intake of about 35 percent of calories, which is why you are not advised to go crazy on protein intake and try to get the majority of your calories from it. A potentially fatal condition known as “rabbit starvation syndrome” can occur with a diet dominated by lean protein and deprived of fats and carbs.

Early American explorers and pioneers discovered that dependence in the wilderness on meat that didn’t contain enough fat, like rabbits, caused nausea, diarrhea, and sometimes death.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the famous Arctic explorer from Canada (he ended up his exciting life as Director of Polar Studies at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire), also commented on the ill effects and futility of trying to survive on skinny animals in the far north with the Inuit. He spent a few years living with the Inuit on Arctic expeditions about 100 years ago, and his writings and self-experiments cast light on the Inuit’s, and our own, ability to live almost exclusively for months on meat and fat.


Where did the Inuit derive their vitamins, such as C, on this seal- and whale-meat diet? “Fediuk [analyzed] the vitamin C content of 100-gram (3.55-ounce) samples of foods eaten by Inuit women living in the Canadian Arctic: Raw caribou liver supplied almost 24 milligrams, seal brain close to 15 milligrams, and raw kelp more than 28 milligrams.”

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4.1 Proteins Do Important Stuff

The body requires protein in big and small ways. Human genes are essentially recipes for creating proteins. Skeletal muscle incorporates proteins called myosin and actin; bones are about one-fifth composed of the protein collagen, which dominates connective tissue such as ligaments and tendons. Organ tissue, the gut, skin, hair (keratin), and blood vessels also contain structural proteins.

Proteins are also functional; they do important stuff. Examples of the functional proteins are hormones that are made of protein (including glucagon, insulin, and growth hormone), immune system cells such as antibodies, enzymes (the catalysts for the body’s chemical reactions, and used in digestion itself), as well as red and white blood cells. Figure 6 shows a hemoglobin molecule, a protein complex in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

A hemoglobin molecule contains protein in blue and red, and iron in green (source: )

Figure 6. A hemoglobin molecule contains protein in blue and red, and iron in green (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemoglobin)

Proteins are like Lego structures, but this time the Lego pieces are amino acids, the protein’s building blocks. The body can build thousands of different proteins using numerous combinations of these almost two dozen ingredients.


The body synthesizes from 500 to 1,000 pounds of protein, depending on the person’s size, during a lifetime!

Here is some nomenclature involving proteins: 10 or more amino acids stuck together form a polypeptide (and two are a dipeptide and three a tripeptide). A polypeptide with more than 50 amino acids is called a protein, which can be composed of as many as 10,000 amino acids.

Proteins have to be broken down into their constituent amino acids to be digested. This happens first in the stomach and then in the small intestine, employing a number of enzymes, including peptidases, proteases, and trypsin. The protein building blocks, the amino acids, make their way to the liver (where some are actually metabolized for energy), then into the bloodstream, where the cells take them up to help make more proteins.

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