Going on a High-Protein Diet? Learn the History of Protein

Discover precisely what makes protein unique

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

High-protein diets like the Keto Diet might be all the rage, but scientists have long recognized the value of protein for our health and vitality. Professor Anding walks you through the history of protein and explains precisely what protein is made of.

Man pouring protein powder into shaker cup
Protein is an essential macronutrient that our bodies must get daily in order to supply amino acids for the growth and maintenance of cells. Photo By Syda Productions / Shutterstock

History of Protein

To understand why this macronutrient is so important, it’s helpful to know the history of protein. Protein comes from the Greek word meaning primary, or “proteios.” It was first described by a Swedish chemist by the name of Berzelius in 1838. 

However, the first protein to be sequenced into its individual amino acids was insulin, and it was done by Dr. Frederick Sanger, who won the Nobel Prize in 1958. How are protein and amino acids interconnected? 

Amino acids are the building block of protein, so when Dr. Sanger sequenced this, he discovered which amino acid, or building block, went in which order to produce insulin. Insulin is the hormone responsible for getting not only glucose or carbohydrate into the cell but also other essential nutrients as well.

We know that protein is an indispensable nutrient, meaning it must be consumed in the diet. Your body has no other way of getting in this essential nutrient, other than what you consume. 

That’s why it comes from the Greek word for primary, “proteios,” to mean that it is of primary importance in the diet. Protein can be found in every single tissue in the body. 

For example, it’s in your skin, your hair, and even in your bone and muscle. We don’t really think of bone as being protein, but there are actually protein-producing cells within your bone to build the matrix around which bone is built. 

What Is Protein Made Of?

What makes this nutrient so unique? As opposed to carbohydrate and fat, protein contains the element nitrogen and is about 16% nitrogen. 

Many of the waste products of protein metabolism are going to be nitrogen-based compounds. Urea, which is found in urine, is a nitrogen-containing compound. 

Nitrogen is the central element in amino acids, the building block of proteins. At least 10,000 different proteins of different shapes and sizes have helped to build your body and maintain it. 

With genetic codes as a blueprint, protein is built from amino acids. This genetic code is like an architectural design, telling you where the plumbing goes, setting up the electrical wiring, and within your body, helping to lay out what kinds of proteins are built from these amino acids at what point in time.

Your body is composed of 20 amino acids, nine of which are classified as essential. Essential means that you must obtain these amino acids from your diet because your body does not make them on its own.

The sequencing of these amino acids is so precise that the sequencing determines the protein structure. We have a limited amount of amino acids, but an infinite array of how we can arrange those amino acids in a different sequence to get a different protein structure. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.