Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.
All About Amino Acids
If you’re looking for ways to build muscle, the term amino acids will inevitably come up. But amino acids aren’t just important for boosting muscle strength and size, you need amino acids to survive. Where do you find them and what foods contain them? Let’s look at what amino acids are and how you get them
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They occur in all living things and make up components like hair, muscle, teeth, bones, and skin. Amino acids are important for rebuilding these tissues. For example, when bodybuilders lift weights, it causes microscopic damage to their muscle fiber that must be repaired. Amino acids help rebuild those damaged muscle fibers.
Amino acids are also components of enzymes, which speed up chemical reactions in your body, and immune cells that help fight infection. You also need amino acids to make some hormones and neurotransmitters, substances in the brain that affect appetite, mood, and sleep.
The Role of Amino Acids
Your body can make some amino acids. These amino acids are called non-essential since you don’t have to get them through diet. Essential amino acids are those your body can’t make, and you must get through your diet. There are 9 essential amino acids and 11 that are non-essential.
It’s not surprising that some athletes and bodybuilders consume a high-protein diet or protein supplements that contain amino acids, since they’re constantly repairing muscle tissue, but everyone needs them to avoid a deficiency. A deficiency of amino acids could cause symptoms such as:
- Bone loss
- Increased risk of infection
- Muscle loss
- Fragile hair and nails
- Skin problems
- Swelling in the legs due to fluid retention
- Changes in appetite and weight
Where Do You Get Amino Acids?
You get amino acids by eating protein. If you include enough protein in your diet, you should get enough amino acids for health. Both meat and dairy are high in protein and contain all the essential amino acids your body needs and can’t make.
Plant-based foods sources, like beans, lentils, whole grains, and even some vegetables also provide protein and amino acids. However, not all plant-based foods contain all nine essential amino acids your body must get through diet.
Unlike meat and dairy that are complete protein sources (contain all essential amino acids, plant-based foods may be deficient in one or more essential amino acids. Yet you can get all the essential amino acids your body needs by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources.
Animal-Based Sources of Amino Acids
- Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, hard cheese
Foods Rich in Amino Acids
Some of the best plant-based sources of amino acids include:
- Black beans
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
- Edamame (green soybeans)
- Split peas
- Buckwheat (kasha)
- Brown rice
- Soy-based foods, like tofu and tempeh
- Nuts – peanuts (actually a legume) and hemp seeds are excellent sources of protein
Quinoa, hempseeds, and soy-based foods are standout sources of plant-based protein because they contain all the essential amino acids. Even vegetables contain some protein, but whole grains, beans, lentils, and soy foods provide more.
Should you worry about getting enough amino acids in your diet? Most Americans get enough protein from their diet to supply their body’s amino acid needs. You can get this by eating a diet that includes meat, dairy, and plant-based foods and by eating a vegetarian diet. However, you’ll need to eat a variety of protein-rich plant foods to get a balanced array of essential amino acids from a plant-based diet alone.
Where do you find amino acids? They’re in the foods you eat, both animal and plant-based. If you’re eating a varied diet, you’re most likely getting enough amino acids in your diet for health. If you’re consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need to make more of an effort to ensure you’re getting enough protein to supply your body with essential amino acids.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.