Nutrition is a fundamental cornerstone in establishing human welfare, and a major component of sustaining good overall health, particularly mental wellbeing. Sri Lanka drives impressive socio-economic indicators at national level in comparison to many of its South Asian neighbours. Yet in certain communities, high rates of maternal and child under-nutrition, (children under five) together with rapidly rising overweight and obesity continue to present a major set of challenges.
While all nutrients are vital in a balanced diet, proteins play a significant role. They are the building blocks of life due to the presence of essential, indispensable amino acids, which any other food cannot replace. It greatly influences the structure and function of the brain and all other components of the nervous system.
A deficiency of this protein leaves people with less energy and interest in leading a full life, as it negatively impacts cognitive development and performance. The harmful impact of undernutrition on the brain and nervous system development, begins as early as pregnancy and is largely complete by the first two years of life.
Dissecting the makeup of a protein molecule
Protein is a complex nutrient, which is an important component of human cells. Certain proteins contribute to the structure and movement of our body’s cells, while others act as metabolic enzymes and coordinators. Dissecting the structure of protein reveals a long chain of amino acid units, some of which act as precursors in the production of key neurotransmitters.
How does protein impact mental health?
Neurotransmitters allow brain cells to communicate with other cells. A deficiency of amino acids critical to the optimum functioning of neurotransmitters is associated with a whole set of disorders, including depression, addiction, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and Schizophrenia.
They are the working force in the nervous system coordinating all cells and are essential in preventing and treating mental health conditions. Further, good sleep which is strongly linked with enabling optimum brain function, is also often disturbed when the body is lacking certain amino acids such as tryptophan, which is known to boost athletic performance, improve mood and clarity, and strengthen mental attitude.
The fate of proteins in a meal
When protein is ingested, it’s broken down into amino acids in the digestive system, which are then used to help your body with vital processes such as building muscle and regulating immune function. The body needs 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly. Amino acids are categorized as essential, conditionally essential or non-essential depending on the body’s ability to produce it on its own. While all 20 of these are important, only nine amino acids are classified as essential. If the body is incapable of synthesizing certain amino acids, they must be ingested exclusively from dietary protein.
Wonders of a balanced diet
A balanced protein-rich diet has also long been proven to cut back on the need for processed, sugary foods and too much of which prompt high levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue, and compromises the balance between physical and mental health. Since the body always gains energy from common sources such as carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, a lack of available protein leads to depend more on carbohydrates or lipids. A high intake of sugar suppresses chemical compounds in the brain responsible for the maintenance, growth and differentiation of nerve cells.
Meeting the body’s regular demand for protein
The international Dietary Reference Intake (DFI) prescribes 0.8 grams of good quality protein per Kg of body weight. The two major sources of amino acids stem from plants or animals. Best quality animal origin proteins include eggs, milk and chicken, due to their special amino acid composition, while soybeans, drumsticks, leafy vegetables and various types of pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and black gram are rich sources of protein originating from plants. Among these, soya beans and nuts contain the highest composition of quality protein, equating to about 35 – 55 grams of protein per 100 grams of dried produce. In Sri Lanka, the most affordable and easily accessible soya protein source is textured soya food products.
Textured Vegetable Protein is a highly nutritious, healthy soy product that is incredibly wealthy in good quality protein, contains less fat and is an excellent alternative to meat. It is also a good source of dietary fibre, iron, magnesium and phosphorus.
Taking care of your mental health involves a holistic physical and nutrition-based approach. Protein is an essential macronutrient to boost and maintain processes in the body at optimum levels. Therefore, creating a daily menu plan that includes plenty of easily accessible protein can be an important act of self-care that can help fortify mental health and restore the body’s holistic health necessary for one to reach their maximum potential.
[The writer is Prof Shirani Ranasinghe, Senior Prof. in Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry at the Faculty of Medicine – University of Peradeniya.]