You probably know that it's essential for building muscle, but protein is also a beauty essential with benefits that go more than skin-deep
By: Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones
You might eat protein to fuel workouts, keep you full until lunchtime or simply to hit your macros. But do you ever put protein-wielding fork to mouth with your body’s biggest organ in mind? Here’s why you should consider protein an essential ingredient for the healthy function of your skin.
"Protein is ubiquitous within the body," says Daniel Clarke, registered nutritionist and lead sustainable nutrition executive at Huel. "It's used to build and maintain muscle - hence the hackneyed view of the gym bro. But it’s also involved in everything from making you feel full, to the workings of an effective immune system, to digestion – and it’s essential for cellular functions within the skin.’
This versatility is because almost everything in the body begins with protein. Or rather, parts of it, because when we eat protein, our bodies break it down into amino acids. "Think of protein like a long, beaded necklace," says Clarke. "When the body digests the macronutrient, it snaps the bonds between the beads, breaking them down into individual units - the amino acids. These ‘beads’ are then absorbed in your small intestine into the bloodstream, taken where they need to go in the body and rebuilt into the types of protein ‘necklace’ needed on site." Such as your skin.
Let’s dig down into the dermal layers and figure out what protein is actually doing there. First up: keratin, which sits at the top of the skin in the epidermal layer. "It links cells and forms a protective layer on the outside of the skin, creating a barrier between the body and the environment around us and preventing bacteria from passing in between the cells," explains skincare expert, Lisa Franklin.
Moving deeper, the layer below your visible epidermis – the dermis – consists of a network of interlacing connective tissue made up mainly of collagen. It's what makes skin tough and strong, and even though it forms around 70 per cent of the dermis, it's continually being broken down and replaced. That requires a lot of protein. "Collagen is a hard, insoluble and fibrous protein with molecules that are packed together to form long, thin fibrils acting as a support structure for cells," says Franklin. "Collagen production declines with age and with the oxidative effects of environmental pollutants."
Elastin also sits within the deeper dermal layer and, as the name suggests, is all about bounce. "Elastin keeps skin flexible and normal levels are integral to maintaining healthy skin structure," says Franklin. "Levels decrease with age and environmental damage caused by sun exposure and pollution, contributing to a loss of structural integrity." In layman's terms: sagging.
So how can you make sure you’re getting enough of the good stuff inside to maintain what's on the outside? "When we look at the RDAs of 50g for women and 60g for men, these are figures based on sedentary people,’ says Clarke. In other words: you're going to need to eat more protein if you’re active, because more of it is going into things like muscle repair.
Not just any protein, though; a hastily scarfed sausage roll is not the nutritional foundation for plump, dewy skin. You need to eat a range of foods because although some amino acids can be made from the building blocks of the proteins we eat – like taking apart a Lego house and turning it into a Lego fire engine – there are also essential amino acids, which the body can’t produce itself (fortunately, Huel is packed with them).
Take, for example, Histidine – found in things like tofu, wholewheat and eggs – which may reduce symptoms of eczema and has antioxidant properties. Or Methionine, an amino acid that protects the skin from harmful substances and is found in turkey, tofu, milk, cheese, nuts and quinoa. Research shows it plays a critical role in making new proteins inside cells, something that is continuously occurring as older ones break down with age.
"There’s a myth that says that we need animal protein because plant proteins are incomplete," says Clarke. "But there are some plant-based protein sources that are complete and contain all the amino acids in the right amounts. Also, the trick is to combine different protein sources, like legumes and grains – which is why there’s brown rice and pea protein in Huel. This is a simple workaround for vegans to keep in mind for every meal."
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