Complex Proteins: How Is It Digested?

The body uses various enzymes in protein digestion to break down complex proteins. There are also substances in the small intestine that help.

Woman eating fresh green salad

What secretions are needed to digest complex proteins into single amino acids for absorption? During the day Humans consume whole proteins like meat, fish, soybeans, and dairy. The body then has to break down the proteins into individual amino acids for digestion. There are various substances involved in the body. They include different enzymes and stuff in the small intestine. These processes are important so the person can digest the proteins and use them for different functions like energy. The amount of time needed for breaking down proteins is based on the form. For example, the body digests whey protein shakes in 1.5 hours but more time is needed for beef steaks.

Protein is an important macronutrient that people consume daily. The amount of protein required is based on factors like gender and physical activity. For example, an average sitting woman needs 46g of protein and the average sitting man needs 56g of protein. If you’re more active then you’ll need more animal/plant-based protein. The amount of processing done to break down proteins varies based on the type. For example, a beef/pork steak will be more difficult than a miso soup or protein shake. However, the process still involves the same substances as hard-to-pronounce enzymes.

What Exactly Are Complex Proteins?

Complex proteins are made up of 2+ peptide chains. It’s a very technical term. In a nutshell, proteins are made up of peptides, which are made up of amino acids. The human body has 20 amino acids. This includes 11 “non-essential” aminos the body makes. Then there are also “essential” aminos that people must get through foods.

Essential aminos are found in different kinds of foods like:

  • Meat/Chicken
  • Fish/Seafood
  • Grains/Seeds/nuts
  • Beans
  • Veggies
  • Dairy

Some of these foods are “complete” proteins so they have all 9 EAAs. They include animal-sourced ones like meat, eggs, and dairy. There are some plant-based complete proteins too like the cereal/grain quinoa and soybean.

Then there are incomplete proteins that don’t include all 9 EAAs. These can be high-protein options like whole grains, seeds, and beans besides soybeans. These don’t have every EAA but they can often be paired with other incomplete proteins to turn them into complete ones. Some examples include PB & j sandwiches on whole wheat bread, and kidney beans & rice.

The body has to break down both complete/incomplete proteins. This allows the body to absorb the foods as individual amino acids. More on that later. The key takeaway from the process is some foods/proteins are more “complex” than others.

For example, it’s logical that foods like red meat will require more processing to digest than others like fish and seafood. It’s also easier to digest whey protein shakes than pork chops.  

You can also consume complete/incomplete proteins in dietary supplements. There are different options. For example, some protein powders are made from meat, egg, soy, or dairy sources. These are all complete proteins and are tougher for the body to break down.

Then there are also protein supplements with incomplete proteins. They include options like BCAA protein powders. These are easier to break down versus complex proteins so the process is done faster.  

Digestion Of Complex Proteins for Absorption

The human body must break down all food so it can absorb/digest it. That’s also true of different macronutrients like carbs, proteins, and fats. The process is basically the same for all food. However, some foods have more complex structures than others. This means the process of breaking down the proteins is also more complex.

The body has to break down nutrients so it can use them for different functions like energy. That’s also the case with complex proteins.    

The process is very complex. However, the main takeaway is it involves breaking down food into much smaller stuff so your body can use it. When you consume protein there are many steps involved. For example, as soon as you start chewing grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, or miso cubes saliva enzymes. These are substances that cause one chemical change in the body.

There are various substances involved in the process like enzymes and acids. They break down the proteins into peptides, and then into amino acids. This process involves body parts like the mouth, stomach, and small intestine.

The small intestine has a big role in the process. It uses enzymes to keep breaking down chains of amino acids into single amino acids. This makes it easier for the body to absorb/digest them.  

The process of protein digestion can take quite a while. For example, the processing of beef/pork steak can take up to three days. The small intestine absorbs the protein. There are small string-like structures that start absorbing nutrients like amino acids.

If you want your body to absorb more protein there are different steps you can take. One is to eat whole foods that have all 9 EAAs. These are complex/whole proteins versus incomplete proteins. Go with real meat vs canned meat, whole eggs vs egg whites, and full-fat milk vs whey protein. Consume a wide range of plant-based proteins.

Tips to Absorb More Protein

1. Avoid high-intensity workouts after eating

Health/fitness experts suggest waiting 1 to 2 hours to do gym workouts after eating a meal. The amount of time is greatly based on how heavy the meal was. The wait time could be closer to one hour after a light meal, and around 2+ hours after an epic cheat meal. This will help the body process food normally and prevent possible digestion issues.

2. Consume proteins during the day

It’s better to consume protein throughout the day for better absorption. Try to build every meal around protein. You can also add some probiotics like yogurt, miso soup, and sauerkraut to help absorb protein better. Another way to get probiotics is through dietary supplements. However, food is always the best source of food nutrients.

3. Reduce stress

We usually don’t think of stress as related to digestion. It turns out high-stress levels can affect everything from teeth/bones to the stomach, and from the skin to hair. Stress/worry can negatively affect how well the body absorbs nutrients like protein. Try to relax by doing yoga/meditation, walking/exercising, and enjoying hobbies/recreation.

4. Chew your food

Fun Fact: Some diets require people to chew each mouthful of food 50+ times. That’s a lot of chewing, right? It turns out the concept isn’t a bad one. This helps to break down the food from chewing and adding saliva enzymes to the food bits.

5. Eat regularly during the day

The old-school method is three square meals/day. This is one of several ways you can consume/absorb protein. Other options include 6 to 8 small meals per day. You can also do intermittent fasting (IF) and fast 16 to 20 hours per day. The key is to make sure you’re eating on a regular schedule after learning what secretions are needed to digest complex proteins into single amino acids for absorption?

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