It’s almost officially summer and I’ve finally come out of hibernation, ready to write about nutrition and fitness again. This is my favorite time of year and I become more motivated during these months to adopt a healthier lifestyle. I typically maintain the same high level of fitness throughout the year, but during the spring I start eating better simply because fresh foods are more accessible. During this time of year all I want to do is cook, eat, run and sleep. Spring is the best time to say no to unhealthy packaged foods and start eating closer to what nature intended for us.
If you have access to a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program I highly recommend that you join. CSA is a program where members pay a local farmer to grow your food. The farmer will grow a variety of crops through the growing season and you get whatever was harvested that week. Our CSA is wonderful and provides us with both an abundance and a large variety of produce to eat during the week. The program ensures that we are diligent about preparing meals at home and forces us to try foods that we wouldn’t normally buy. Our CSA provides us with fruits and veggies, but this year we also joined a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) based out of Sitka, AK. How it works is that fish are line caught, cleaned, flash-froze and shipped directly to our door. Unfortunately the food is not local like food from a CSA, but it is from the United States and supports American family fishermen. We get five pounds of fish each month for seven months, getting a different type of fish each month.
Being a pescetarian, meaning the only meat I eat is an occasional piece of fish, the CSF provides me an opportunity to get protein from a source other than beans, nuts or the many dairy products that are available in Wisconsin. Now for the science of CSF as anyone can blog about the latest meals they ate or their latest workouts, but only a nerd like myself will blog about what it means from a scientific perspective. Obviously protein is an important component of our diets and it is one of the four major types of macromolecules in our bodies. I am not a nutritionist or an M.D. and therefore cannot tell you how much protein you need to consume, but I can tell you about what protein is and what it does for us. From a personal standpoint I can tell you that I likely consume less protein than the average American, yet I am able to run marathons, am in better shape than almost everyone I know, and to be frank, I look good. To get personalized dietary requirements you will want to contact a health professional.
As a scientist, I can tell you that proteins pretty much do everything and are not just there for the development of toned muscles. Allow me to explain what they are exactly. As I mentioned above, there are four major classes of macromolecules. There are carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids and proteins. Proteins are the most diverse of the four types in both their chemistry, structure and their functions. The human body contains literally thousands of unique proteins, each with specialized functions. They are found in every cell type and not just in the muscles of your biceps or triceps. They are highly varied in their 3D structure, which dictates their function. Some proteins are large, some are small, some look like a fiber, some look like a big blob, some have beautiful shapes and some even have passageways in them. Being able to list the function of every protein will likely not ever be accomplished, and even a general list of functions for different proteins would not fit into this article. Determining their structures and deciphering their functions experimentally is paramount for delineating important molecular processes.
Proteins are strings of a combination of 20 unique amino acids hooked together through peptide bonds formed during a process called translation, and the strings fold into 3D shapes to become functional proteins. The genome, or DNA, encodes the instructions for making each protein. The DNA is first transcribed into a molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) and then the mRNA is used to make protein. Some proteins are constantly being produced while others are produced only in specific cellular conditions. As I cannot emphasize enough, proteins pretty much do everything. Proteins provide structural support by creating a skeleton within each cell (this is known as the cytoskeleton) and by linking cells together to form tissues such as the epithelium that lines our airways and digestive tracks, for example. They help transport other molecules in and out of the cell, tell a cell when to duplicate or not duplicate, tell a cell when to self-destruct, stimulate the production or destruction of other proteins, signal cells either in close proximity or far away to change their behavior, help produce and degrade the other types of macromolecules, tell an immune cell to destroy a bacterium or stimulate an allergic reaction, break down food you just ate, and work at every step of metabolism. In addition, most chemical reactions in the human body involve a protein. The numbers and types of proteins that are present in a cell at a given time dictates the function of a particular cell, and imbalances can lead to serious diseases. We could spend all day talking about the known functions of different proteins, but I think we’ll conclude by saying they have many many many functions.
So, the next time you eat a heap of lentils or olive oil-poached halibut with capers remember that the protein in that meal is going to be used for much more than maintaining that beautiful physique you developed after training with Kevin or Connie.