Can Protein Help Boost Immunity?


A robust immune system is a crucial factor in today’s scenario. The immune system must be constantly spirited, monitoring for signs of any disease or infection. The main layers of defence mechanisms are: surface factors, innate immunity and acquired or adaptive immunity. Nutrition for immunity is the key and an ongoing process which begins in the womb of the mother. A balanced diet and lifestyle have always been an ally for your wellbeing and innate being, along with protein.

The role of protein is undeniable for immunity. Proteins are extremely complex nitrogenous organic compounds in which amino acids are the units of structure. Proteins are the vertebral column of the body’s immune systems, antibodies, enzymes and hormones. Proteins are made up of amino acids that play a role in establishing immunity. Immune cells that are benefited by protein include leukocytes, cytokines, phagocytes which are necessary for normal immune function and stave off the infections. It helps power immune system, stoking the cells that you need to fight off infection, both bacterial and viral, and keep your guard up against illness of all kinds.

Protein plays an important role in powering your body’s T-cells, the agents that go out and attack opportunistic invaders that can get into your bloodstream and cause infection, and if you lack adequate protein intake, it can impair immune reaction, studies have found. A diet low in protein leaves you open to fatigue, weakness, and low immune response, all the more reason you need to get your essential amino acids from the food you eat (which is better than supplements). Meanwhile, your body is just as happy to get its full complement of protein from plants.

A deficiency of dietary protein or amino acids (AAs) has long been known to impair immune function and increase the susceptibility of animals and humans to infectious disease. However, only in the past 15 years have the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms begun to unfold. Protein malnutrition reduces concentrations of most amino acids in plasma. 


Backed by science

Preclinical findings revealed that protein gives immune cells called regulatory T (Treg) cells the ’authority’ to control the strength of the immune response depending on the level of ’threat’, from minor infections to aggressive diseases.

Without this regulatory influence, the immune system is at risk of overreacting to the threat, leading to the development of inflammatory diseases.

Antibodies are made up proteins and antibodies are bound to specific foreign particles, such as viruses and bacteria, to help protect the body. During the immunological stress, amino acids are redistributed away from protein production toward tissues involved in inflammation and immune response.

The increased synthesis of immune system metabolites such as acute phase proteins, immunoglobulin, and glutathione is accompanied by the increased demand for specific AA. For example, the dietary tyrosine (Tyr), phenylalanine , and tryptophan requirements are increased to support the immune response under inflammatory conditions in pigs.


What is available in the market?

Only dietary protein is not sufficient to meet the requirement of proteins in nowadays scenario. Globally markets are flooded with so many novel protein supplements. According to the American Dairy Products Institute (ADPI), the top protein fortification ingredients by volume in the global protein market continue to be soya and dairy, followed by pea, wheat, potato, and rice. While advantages in cost, availability, nutrition, and functionality will keep soya and dairy in the lead, other proteins have strong appeal in specific applications, such as wheat protein in baking and pea protein as a non-GM, allergy-free alternative to soya.

 Plant-based proteins like soya, canola, rice, wheat, and pea are becoming increasingly popular as supplements. Various companies are looking for new opportunities by valorising the ingredients to enhance the nutritional content of the products or by developing new applications for vicelin, globulins, prolamins, and albumins, among others.

Nestle is working on developing plant based alternative protein products for the Indian market that would be familiar to Indian taste, culture, and texture. However, the company does not believe in the strategy of substituting dairy protein with plant-based protein as it is socially unethical.

Powdered protein:

Powdered protein can come from a variety of sources, including eggsmilk (e.g., casein, whey), and plants (e.g., soyabeans, peas, hemp). Some protein powders contain protein from multiple sources; for instance, a vegan option might include protein derived from peas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and alfalfa. Protein powders are dietary supplements and are not reviewed by the FDA for safety or effectiveness. They can often contain non-protein ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, thickeners, added sugarsnon-caloric sweeteners, and artificial flavouring. If you choose to consume protein powder, it is important to read the nutrition and ingredient labels beforehand so you know what you’re buying.
Soya protein powder  is derived from soyabeans, and unlike many plant-based proteins, it contains adequate levels of all essential amino acids. It is a common alternative to milk protein for vegans or people with dairy sensitivities or allergies. Soya protein is absorbed fairly rapidly by the body, although it is not as bioavailable as animal-based proteins.

Pea protein powder is made from yellow split peas, and can be an option for vegans or people with allergies or sensitivities to soya or dairy. Pea protein is rich in eight of the nine essential amino acids; it is low in methionine, which can be obtained from other sources including rice and animal proteins. 

Protein bars and immunity balls:

Protein bars are a popular snack food designed to be a convenient source of nutrition and immunity. Many people enjoy them because they’re a quick way to add protein and other nutrients to a busy and active lifestyle. Given the wide variety of protein bars on the market, it’s important to know that not all protein bars are not created equal.

Whey protein:

Whey protein is a well-known, complete protein source that provides all the essential amino acids our body needs. Whey proteins also contain individual proteins such as Lactoferrin and immunoglobulins that have immune-enhancing bioactivity. 

Whey protein also has potent antioxidant activity because it is rich in the amino acid’s cysteine and methionine. With a high concentration of these amino acids, immune function is enhanced through intracellular conversion to glutathione (GSH). Glutathione is the centrepiece of the body antioxidant defence system that protects cells against free radical damage, pollution, toxins, and infection. Glutathione levels decrease with age and illness. Whey protein also has potent antioxidant activity because it is rich in the amino acids cysteine and methionine. With a high concentration of these amino acids, immune function is enhanced through intracellular conversion to GSH. Glutathione is the centrepiece of the body antioxidant defence system that protects cells against free radical damage, pollution, toxins, and infection. Glutathione levels decrease with age and illness. In comparison to other protein sources, whey proteins are best.

Peanut butter:

Peanuts for their high vitamin E and zinc content, both of which help to support our immune systems. Peanut butter contains 7.02 grams (g) of protein per 2-tbsp serving. This counts toward the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) Trusted Source for women of 46 g and 56 g for men, which varies by age and activity level.

Ezekiel Breads:

Ezekiel bread is about as nutrient-dense as a bread gets. It’s a type of sprouted bread, made from a variety of whole grains and legumes that have started germinating (sprouting). Compared to white bread, which is made of refined wheat flour, Ezekiel bread is much richer in nutrients and fibre.



Some countries have issued nutrition guidance for the general population and people recovering from viral infections. Health officials have emphasised the importance of adequate intake of dietary proteins. 2022 is also a promotion year to boost immunity that is why this year’s IDA theme is ‘diet diversification is the need of the time to fight by infection.’



Dr Anumiita Pathakk, Clinical Nutritionist

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