All About Essential Amino Acids
Most of us have heard the term, amino acids. And it’s reasonable to assume that many of us have a very vague idea of what they are. But for such an important facet of our biology, I’ve found in my clinic that there is a lot of muddy conceptions about the “building blocks of life.” Let’s break down the knowledge barrier and get into amino acids.
What are amino acids?
The term amino acids refers to more than 300 chemical compounds composed of mostly nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Luckily we don’t have to deal with all 300+. Our body is composed of (and requires) only 20.
These 20 amino acids join together in the body in various combinations and, in doing so, end up becoming our actual tissue–everything from muscles to tendons to the liver to your skin.
11 of these 20 amino acids are what we call “non-essential.” This means your body is able to make them itself using raw materials. The other nine, dubbed “essential amino acids” cannot be synthesized in the body and must be consumed whole in the foods we eat.
As you might imagine considering our cells are in a constant cyclical state of growth, reproduction and death, we need a pretty steady supply of these 20 amino acids to ensure the materials are present to make new organ, bone, connective and muscle tissue.
In general, in most developing and developed parts of the world, people get enough raw material for their body to make the 11 non-essential amino acids (too much actually). It’s getting enough of the 9 essential amino acids where there’s a problem.
What happens when you don’t get your 9 essential amino acids?
In short, the biggest problem is muscle loss. Amino acids are crucial for the regeneration and growth of muscle tissue. That is to say, just to maintain your current amount of muscle tissue, you need to be consuming the right amount of the 9 essential amino acids.
You might be thinking… well, there are certainly worse fates than losing a bit of muscle. But it goes so much deeper than that.
Your muscle tissue plays an important role in several other biological processes. To make a quick list:
- Muscles play an important role in hormone production. When muscle mass declines, so does the production of important hormones in both men and women. This includes testosterone and estrogen. When these hormones decline, we age more quickly, we lose our desire and ability to have sex, we become more lethargic and both physically and mentally less–shall we say–thrilled about life.
- Muscles play an important role in healing. Every injury or disease causes some degree of tissue loss across most biological systems. Amino acids (that form into proteins, and then muscles) are required for healing.
- Strong muscles help prevent against bone loss, developing diabetes, obesity and even cancer. This is an interesting one, and the scientific community is not entirely sure why, but muscle density, mass and health are closely related to the development and recovery from cancer.
How do I get all my 9 essential amino acids?
Simply put, eat enough protein. The recommended daily amount of protein for men is 56 grams. For women, the recommended daily amount is 46 grams.
Where that protein comes from is the next logical question–and surprisingly enough, it can be a bit controversial!
If you eat a variety of animal proteins (highly recommended that those proteins are grass fed, wild caught and free range of other important reasons) and you get your daily recommended amount, you’ll be fine.
However, 56 grams of protein is actually quite a bit when it comes to meat. It’s roughly the equivalent of 1.5 chicken breasts or 8-9 oz of a ribeye steak. And while that might not seem like much, most of us aren’t having ribeye every day or more than one chicken breast.
Luckily, protein comes in many forms beyond meat. While it’s smart to have a piece of chicken, beef, lamb or fish at least once a day, that can be supplemented with things like beans, nuts, lentils, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli and asparagus.
While all of these vegetables have decent amounts of essential amino acids, none of them have ALL 9 essential amino acids in one serving.
If you are to get all your 9 essential amino acids without meat, you need to eat a wide variety of these vegetables in relatively high quantities. This is one of my criticisms of vegetarianism and veganism (here comes the controversy). While it is definitely possible to consume all 9 essential amino acids without animal products, it takes variety and level of food conscientiousness that, frankly, most people are not cut out for.
The majority of vegans and vegetarians eat way too many carbs and not nearly enough high-protein vegetables. Again, it’s possible, but it’s difficult and failing to stay on top of it can prove dangerous.
But if you must, the best you’re going to do is black beans. They do contain all 9 essential amino acids. The thing is, you’ve got to eat about 3 cups a day of black beans to fulfill your daily requirements.