Importance of Protein & Complete Amino Acids to a Plant Based Diet

In this post, I want to talk all about protein, and protein in the context of it being plant-based. So often we hear how we need a lot of protein, especially, in the world of fitness, bodybuilding, and sports. Because discourse is so general, it becomes very easy to look at it in a vague way without really knowing and understanding what it is.

Photo via @cydniebureau.

Photo via @cydniebureau.

Importance of Protein

I want to start by establishing the importance of protein, and laying a basis for understanding. In terms of nutrition, protein is indeed an essential nutrient exceptionally important and for maintaining overall good health. Protein is one of three categories of our macronutrients–the other two being fats and carbohydrate. These macronutrients are required in large amounts in order to live long sustained and fulfilled lives.

Protein in specific is necessary for many reasons. It helps us to grow, it supports our immune defense system it helps repair tissue, cells, and muscles in our body, and it helps to heal wounds and it actually makes up the collagen in our body. Collagen is what's responsible for that cell production and regeneration.


What are Amino Acids?

With the basic understanding of its importance, we should know what exactly it is. And not, it's not just chicken. Protein is composed of what are called amino acids. Amino acids are strung together by what is called peptide bonds. These are short chains of amino acids that make up part of an amino acid kind of link a linking chain.

Amino acids play a huge role in terms of communication in the brain. They are chemical messengers–the precursors to other signals in our body that help elicit hormones that tell the rest of our body what to do, therefore making them very important.

The role of these neurotransmitters, their 'job', is to regulate and conduct, and kind of funnel through all of the different functions required for us to live and to be healthy. There are three very important and specific roles of amino acids.

  1. One, they regulate blood sugar levels, ultimately keep our blood glucose levels at a good steady pace. We don't want our blood sugar rising too quickly being too low., and these chemical messengers aid this process.
  2. Two,  they release oxytocin, which is beneficial in two contexts. In one context, during labor, so women are giving birth it helps induce the process. The second context is its release of what is known as the 'love hormone' or the 'bonding' or 'pairing' hormone. Oxytocin is that makes you feel bonded and close to people when you're in any relationship.
  3. It is also a really good precursor for the hormone somatropin. Somatropin is actually growth hormone. Growth hormone is released steadily at certain parts of the day, more at night, and during or after a workout. When growth hormone is released it aids the building of muscle, muscle repair or joint and connective tissue repair.

Without communication in the brain, we may begin to see disorders and conditions such as depression, insomnia, ADD, memory deficits/different problems with our memory, weight gain and an abnormal appetite. More seriously, the appearance of addictive disorders might emerge.  his all happening as result of our body not being able to communicate properly. The neurotransmitters in our brains are not communicating to allow the functions to take place, inhibiting brain wellness and allowing these horrible circumstances to arise. 

I hope you are beginning to see how important amino acids are to our body. More and more we see people transitioning from conventional, or Western carnivores diets, to omnivorous ones. In these cases, they are stopping or reducing their meat consumption and switching to find alternatives, or just eating plants in general. Individuals might consume items such as beans, legumes, all those sorts of things including nuts, seeds, grains, fruits and vegetable and they're getting all their nutrients from those things as opposed to things like beef, salmon or chicken breast. Instead, they move to eating foods such as tofu or tempeh.


Transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet

What I really want to emphasize when transitioning to a plant-based/vegan/vegetarian diet, is the importance of being intentional and adamant about being nourished. I find a lot of people, myself included, fail to supplement and replace previous protein sources when we change our diet to a vegan or vegetarian one. In my case, I neglected to get enough protein. When you transition from a meat-eating diet to an omnivores one, you need to emphasize finding good quality protein alternatives in order to prevent deficiencies, among other consequences. 

We NEED to consume quality protein (where amino acids exist) because there are certain amino acids our body doesn't create on its own. This means certain functions cannot happen without getting these nutrients. These amino acids are called essential. Simply meaning that our body cannot create the message necessary to conduct certain functions in our body, thus, we must get it through nutrients.


The 9 Essential Amino Acids

There are 9 essential amino acids we should try and get through diet and complete protein. When we craft our diets together we should really aim to include and create complete amino acids/complete proteins–so proteins that include all 9 essential amino acids. To understand better, want to briefly cover what these 9 are, and the role they play. 

  1. Isoleucine is essential in the formation of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is what carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissue, then brings carbon dioxide back to the lungs. It also prevents muscle waste when you're not active.
  2. Lucine prevents muscle tissue breakdown, inhibits the transmission of pain signals from going to the central nervous system, thus keeping you in homeostasis. Homeostasis is when your body is in balance and normal function. It also helps repair skin and bone, quite ideal when you break something. So if you break your ankle, leucine is what's coming in and pushing the chemical messenger to tell your body "okay we need to heal that quickly."
  3. Valine supports white and red blood cell formation and it's used a lot in the treatment of anemia amongst other conditions. 
  4. Lysine is great for improving the visible appearance of skin, aids in protein synthesis and muscle tissue connection, it inhibits viruses and helps in the treatment of herpes simplex–so herpes simplex is a strain of viruses and can include things such as cold sores. When you pair this with vitamin C, it delays muscle fatigue because it helps to store oxygen in your muscles better. It also aids in bone growth and all fiber and connective tissues in our bones and cartilage.
  5. Methionine cystine and creatine are created. Cysteine aids in oxidation, protein synthesis, and detoxification. Creatine recycles ATP, so that's the energy currency of cells in the brain. It also helps to take toxic waste from the liver and aids in the regeneration of the liver and kidney.
  6. Phenylalanine enhances learning, memory and mood, is a major contributor to collagen production and suppresses appetite.
  7. Tryptophan this is a serotonin precursor, which releases a calming effect. So if you're an individual that has a hard time relaxing or falling asleep, tryptophan is probably really good for you to take. You can get it at many health food and supplement stores labelled as '5 HTP. Take it before bed, or just an evening when you're coming home you want to relax and need to calm down. It also helps to stimulate muscle growth.
  8. Threonine helps to maintain normal function of the body's system such as the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system or liver function, and our immune system. 1

Again, these amino acids are ESSENTIAL. They are required by nutrition in order to benefit from the functions of these amino acids. We want our protein sources to contain all 9 of these as listed above.

I hope you have a good understanding now of what protein is, how important it's role in our body's communication is, and the different functions amino acids are responsible for in hormonal release to keep our body's healthy. From this, I want you to understand nutrients, and how you can use the knowledge of complete amino acids to help you transition into a plant-based. Focus on quality nutrients, and make sure you're sufficient in everything you need. 





In this video, I explain the importance of protein in the context of understanding amino acids. From this perspective, My aim is to help to transitioning plant-based eaters or curious folks alike how to achieve eating complete proteins through plants. COACHING ♡ Let me be your coach!