In debates on nutrition, fats and carbohydrates monopolise the limelight. Protein, the other member of the ‘macronutrient trio’, unfortunately takes a back seat. But proteins are the building blocks of our body, present in every cell, without which the body cannot perform even the most basic functions! It is, hence, imperative that we pay attention to our child’s protein intake at home.
Did you know? After water, protein is the most abundant nutrient in the body – found in all cells of the body, including hair and skin.
What makes proteins special?
- Protein deposition in the cells helps build children’s muscles and bones, and also keeps their skin, hair, and nails healthy.
- Protein is required for healthy brain functioning; without it, the brain cannot produce enough neurotransmitters (the brain’s messengers that communicate information throughout the body).
- Haemoglobin in blood, required to transport oxygen throughout the body, is actually a protein combined with iron.
- Critical body processes such as water balancing, nutrient transport and muscular contractions require protein.
- Numerous enzymes and hormones in the body are basically proteins.
- Protein is an essential component of the immunity system.
- Protein is also a source of energy, providing four calories per gram, just like carbohydrates
Consequently, protein is absolutely crucial for overall good health!
Dharini Krishnan, a leading dietician in Chennai, observes that “children today are eating two nutrients in abundance – carbohydrates and fat – and are deprived of protein. This can lead to reduced immunity, and can cause a number of health issues. Protein is an important nutrient which plays a role in a variety of functions, most importantly in the resistance of the body to infections.”
Unravelling the protein story
Proteins are classified as complete or incomplete, depending on the presence of nine amino acids that the body cannotmake, called ‘essential amino acids’. Complete proteins are found in animal products like meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese. Incomplete proteins are derived from plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians – the good news is that you can combine two incomplete proteins, for example rice and dal, to create a complete protein meal! However, since protein from vegetarian sources is not as efficiently absorbed by the body as animal protein, ensure that your child’s diet has enough of the latter as well, in the form of milk, yoghurt and eggs.In our country, where cereals rule the roost, and many meals are primarily vegetarian even among non-vegetarians, it is advisable to combine foods to make all the aminoacids available for every meal.