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Protein & the Immune System

author image Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in dietetics and has extensive experience working as a health writer and health educator. Her articles are published on various health, nutrition and fitness websites.
Protein & the Immune System
Farmed fresh eggs on a wooden background Photo Credit: jojokrap/iStock/Getty Images

Having a strong immune system requires a well-balanced diet containing proper amounts of all essential nutrients -- including protein. Since your immune system is made up of proteins and relies on new protein synthesis to function, it’s no surprise that getting too little protein in your diet can weaken your immune system.

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Immune System Proteins

Your body uses amino acids found in dietary proteins to help build proteins within your body -- including proteins that help make up your immune system. For example, immunoglobulins -- also called antibodies -- are proteins that circulate in your blood and make up key components of a strong immune system, according to MedlinePlus. Proteins are also part of antibodies, interferon and complement proteins that support immune system cells or attack viruses, bacteria or other foreign substances in your body.

Daily Protein Requirements

Getting plenty of dietary protein gives you the best chance at keeping your immune system strong. Every adult should consume at minimum the recommended dietary allowance for protein, which is 71 grams per day for pregnant and lactating women, 46 grams for other women and 56 grams for men, according to the Institute of Medicine. Athletes often need extra protein. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 0.64 to 0.91 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily for active adults.

Dietary Sources of Protein

Because a variety of foods are rich in protein, most people in developed countries such as the United States get the protein they need for a strong immune system by eating a well-balanced diet. For example, six egg whites contain about 22 grams of protein, 3 ounces of grilled chicken breast provide 27 grams and a cup of cottage cheese contains about 28 grams of dietary protein. Other healthy protein-rich options include low-fat dairy foods, seafood, legumes, soy products and nuts. Protein supplements are a convenient way to further boost protein intake, especially for athletes.

Other Important Nutrients

In addition to protein deficiency, other nutrient deficiencies may also weaken your immune system. For example, Harvard Health Publications reports that being deficient in zinc, selenium, copper, iron, folic acid and vitamins E, C, B-6 and A may alter immune function. Harvard Health Publications suggests consuming a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables daily to help keep your immune system strong.

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