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Part I: The Low Down on Amino Acids (Protein Building Blocks)

Part I: The Low Down on Amino Acids (Protein Building Blocks)

What are amino acids? Do you need them? And really, why should you care? Let us break it down for you. Here are the basics about amino acids and why you should care about them at all.

What is an amino acid?

An amino acid is very simply a building block of the protein molecule. There are 20 total amino acids that combine in different ways to make every type of protein in your body, from your organs, to your hair, and skin. Think of them as individual Lego blocks that can be strung together in a variety of ways to create all sorts of different structures.

Types of Amino Acids

Of the 20 amino acids, there are only nine that are essential. The word “essential” in nutrition means that they must come from the diet. The other 11 the body can make on its own, therefore they are not considered “essential”.

Amino acids are further broken down into various categories depending on their molecular structure. For example, one type you might be familiar with are the branch-chain amino acids, BCAAs that have been found to boost muscle growth and speed up recovery after workouts. But, knowing the different classifications of amino acids probably doesn’t really matter that much in terms of tapping into the health benefits they provide.

Do I need amino acids?

The bottom line is ABSOLUTELY. Protein is the most essential nutrient for human health. The word protein comes from the Greek word for “primary”. Your body is able to make fats and carbohydrates on its own so in theory you don’t need to regularly eat either (to a point), but it cannot make those nine essential amino acids.

Now what we have established that you need amino acids, how many do you need? Recommendations for individual amino acid needs do exist (you can find them here), but if you eat enough protein there is no need to worry about each individual amino acid.

There is A LOT of debate on how much protein is enough. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is set to 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. But, this number is calculated based on a “reference” man who weighs 154 pounds and a “reference” woman who weighs 125 pounds. Most of us are a lot larger than that these days, so this number may be a bit low.

The RDA also includes a recommendation based on body weight, of 0.8 grams/kg, which translates to 0.36 grams/pound. If you exercise, want to lose weight, or have other higher metabolic needs, you may need more. The bottom line is that how much protein you need can vary a lot.

Meeting Your Amino Acid Needs

Ok, so now you have a basic understanding of amino acids and protein needs, but how does that translate to actual food? Here’s how it breaks down:

  • All animal foods are complete proteins, as they have all nine essential amino acids.     
  • Certain plant foods, such as quinoa, buckwheat, and soy, are also complete proteins.
  • Other plant foods, such as beans or nuts, do contain protein, but are missing one or more essential amino acids.
  • Protein supplements can be used to meet your amino acid needs. Whey, pea, and soy-based supplements are complete proteins.
  • Collagen supplements do not contain all nine essential amino acids (only 8).

As you can see there are a lot of options to meet your protein needs. The best thing to do is to try to include a source of protein at each meal, whether plant or animal-based. This will provide you with the biggest variety of nutrients and make sure you meet your protein needs every day.

 

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