Are You Missing Out on Essential Amino Acids?

4 min read

fit young man with healthy protein foods

By Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

Protein, the body’s most important macronutrient, is made up of compounds called amino acids, sometimes called the “building blocks” of protein. Twenty different amino acids link together to form large, complex chains, which then twist and fold into various shapes to create a protein molecule. The combination and order of the amino acids is what determines the function of the protein. For example, the amino acid profile of muscle protein would be quite different from that of a red blood cell. Each protein molecule is completely unique. 

Although your body needs all the amino acids for optimal health, nine are considered to be essential.

What Are Essential Amino Acids?

Amino acids are made up primarily of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. They vary in shape and function. Of the 20 amino acids in the body, 11 are considered nonessential under normal circumstances, as the body can make them on its own. The other nine are considered essential, and must come from food. 

The nine essential amino acids are: lysine, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine, threonine, histidine, tryptophan and valine. Each of these has its own Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) — above and beyond the total RDA for protein.

The RDA for the essential amino acids should be calculated based on your body weight. Below is the amount needed per kilogram (2.2 pounds):

  • isoleucine: 19 mg
  • leucine: 42 mg
  •  lysine: 38 mg
  • histidine: 14 mg
  • methionine: 19 mg
  • phenylalanine: 33 mg
  • threonine: 20 mg
  • tryptophan: 5 mg
  • valine: 24 mg

The RDA for protein for men is 56 grams per day and for women is 46 grams. But unless you have an underlying medical reason, you don’t need to worry how much of each individual amino acid you are getting in your diet day to day.  If you focus on eating foods that are quality sources of protein these will effortlessly provide all the essential amino acids you need.

The Function of Essential Amino Acids

Each essential amino acid has a specific function in the body:

  • Phenylalanine is a precursor to neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in regulate sleep and mood. This amino acid also helps maintain the structure and function of other proteins.
  • Methionine assists with normal metabolism and detoxification. It is also required to assist with the absorption of zinc and selenium from food.
  • Valine helps support new muscle growth and repair muscle damage. It is also involved in energy production.
  • Threonine is a component of collagen and elastin, the structural proteins of the skin. It also supports healthy immune function and helps the body metabolize fat.
  • Tryptophan is a precursor to neurotransmitters that control sleep, appetite and mood. It is needed to maintain nitrogen balance in the body.
  • Histidine is required to produce histamine, which plays a role in immunity, digestion, sexual function and sleep. It is also part of the myelin sheath, which protects nerve cells from damage.
  • Leucine is needed for blood sugar control, wound healing and is used to make growth hormones. It is also required for muscle growth and repair.
  • Isoleucine is involved in immunity, energy regulation and red blood cell production. It is found in large quantities in the muscles and used for repair.
  • Lysine facilitates enzyme production, calcium absorption and maintenance of hormone levels. It is also important for immunity and collagen production.

All of the above are critically important for maintaining overall health, cellular integrity and immune function. This is why it’s important to consume enough of each essential amino acids

Food Sources of Essential Amino Acids

Many foods contain amino acids, but they do not all provide all of the essential amino acids. Foods containing all nine are called complete proteins. These foods include:

  • meat: beef, chicken, fish, lamb pork
  • eggs
  • soybeans and soy products
  • most animal based-protein powders, such as whey or casein
  • milk, cheese and yogurt

As you can see the only plant protein on the list is soy. Plant-based proteins, such as beans, nuts, seeds, bulgur and quinoa are incomplete proteins because they are usually low in one or more of the essential amino acids.

If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you will need to eat a variety of plant based proteins to meet your daily needs. There are certain plant based foods that contain complementary amino acids

For example, beans are low in methionine, whereas rice is low in lysine. When you eat rice and beans together, this makes a complete protein. One food is able to provide the amino acid the other cannot. It was previously believed that complementary foods needed to be eaten at the same meal, but that is no longer the case. The body can pull out amino acids needed. So if you don’t eat meat, you should be eating a variety of plant-based proteins to get all of your essential amino acids. 

Bottom Line About Essential Amino Acids

Essential amino acids are clearly important for your health and well-being. But it’s not difficult to get enough of them in your diet. Eating foods high in protein — either animal or plant-based — at every meal is enough to meet your daily needs. Start your day with a couple of eggs or a protein shake, eat a few turkey slices with lunch and include chicken or fish as part of your dinner.

With just a little bit of meal planning to create balanced meals, you can easily get enough of these life-sustaining nutrients into your diet every day. But if you find it difficult to work enough high-protein foods into your regular diet, we have an easy solution: Native Origins Collagen Peptides provides 16 amino acids, including all nine essential amino acids, to support core functions of the body. It's the next-best way to get the essential amino acids your body needs.

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