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Protein and Eye Health

What is protein?

Protein is a macronutrient, or type of food that is required in large amounts in our daily diet. Protein is essential in building muscle mass. It is found all over the body in places such as muscle, hair, nails, bone, and skin (basically all body ‘tissues’).

Health benefits of protein

Our body’s cells depend on protein to function properly. Proteins are made up of many smaller units called amino acids, which allow our tissue cells to grow and mend themselves. If you’ve ever felt sore after an intense workout, your muscles are telling you that they’re in need of mending and growing.

Amino acids

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are twenty different types of amino acids that combine to make proteins that have five different functions: antibodies, enzymes, messengers, structural components, and transport/storage.

Antibodies

Antibodies bind to specific foreign particles, such as viruses and bacteria, to help protect the body.

Enzymes

Enzymes carry out almost all of the thousands of chemical reactions that take place in cells. They also assist with the formation of new molecules by reading the genetic information stored in DNA.

Messengers

Messenger proteins, such as some types of hormones, transmit signals to coordinate biological processes between different cells, tissues, and organs.

Structural components

These proteins provide structure and support for cells. On a larger scale, they also allow the body to move.

Transport and storage

These proteins bind and carry atoms and small molecules within cells and throughout the body.

What foods contain protein?

We gift our bodies protein through our diets. Protein is mostly found in animal products such as meats and poultry, fish, and dairy products. If your diet doesn’t include meat (or does, but not a lot... like me) there are other ways to get the protein you need through your diet!

Eggs are my go-to source for protein! Eggs get a lot of my attention because they’re delicious, easy to cook, a great source of protein, and contain lutein and zeaxanthin for my eyes! Beans, legumes, and nuts are also a great source of protein.

For easy reference, the common protein-packed (and eye-healthy) nuts are:

  • Walnuts (walnuts provide an impressive 4 grams of protein per ounce). Eye bonus: they are also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids!
  • Pistachios (pistachios contain an impressive 6 grams of protein per ounce and have fewer calories than most nuts with protein). Eye bonus: they are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin!
  • Cashews: (cashews have 5 grams of protein per serving) Eye bonus: they are rich in calcium, potassium, and magnesium, making them essential for optimal whole body health.
  • Pecans: (pecans have a lower, but still significant amount of protein at 2.6 grams per serving). Eye bonus: Pecans are very high in fiber, which works to clear the gastrointestinal system and helps to maintain whole body health. They are also helpful in supporting skin health by containing vitamins A and E, as well as zinc.
  • Almonds: (almonds contain a whopping 6 grams of protein per ounce). They are especially high in vitamin E, which inhibits cell damage and aids in the prevention of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and macular degeneration.
  • Peanuts: (peanuts pack a hefty 9 grams of protein per ounce). Eye bonus: technically, peanuts are a legume, but are often lumped with other nuts because they offer many of the same benefits of other nuts...and literally have the word ‘nut’ in their name so that can be confusing.

Other common foods containing protein

Protein can also be found in common foods like cream cheese, hard cheeses such as cheddar, yogurt, milk, and peanut butter (and other nut butters). Or, you can add whey protein (powder) to your morning smoothies or in the form of a snack bar, being careful to check for high levels of sugar in some of these high protein items.

What the research says

A study published in 2013 was conducted to figure out the role a specific protein, Protein S, has on maintaining retinal health. In this study, researchers found that the specific protein, Protein S, is indeed essential for maintaining a healthy retina in the eye. Protein S helps maintain retina health through phagocytosis, a process of "pruning photoreceptors, the light-sensitive neurons in the eye."1

Here’s how it works

Simply put, photoreceptors in our eyes continuously grow and elongate from their inner end and need to be ‘pruned’ from their outer end in order to maintain the proper length. Special cells, called retinal pigment epithelial cells, have this important job.

Without this pruning, photoreceptors would degenerate and could lead to blindness. This pruning also clears away free radicals in the retina, which the study says are, “generated during visual biochemical reactions.”

How much protein should we eat daily?

Protein is an essential part of each of our diets. The amount of protein that is best for your specific diet depends on your gender, age, height, weight, and activity lifestyle. The more active you are, the more protein you need in your diet. There are protein calculators readily available online that you can use to type in all of your traits to find out your daily protein requirements. My favorite protein calculator is at www.verywellfit.com.

Protein is another essential part of our daily eye-healthy diet. What is your favorite protein-packed meal? I’d love to hear it in the comments!

Eat well, live well.

Andrea Junge

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