“Amino acids” is one of those buzz terms you probably hear quite often if you’re interested in health and wellness. After reading this article, you’ll understand:
- What they are
- Why you need them
- The difference between essential, non-essential, and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
I’ll also show you an amino acid chart for both Pure Food Protein flavors, since it’s a common question I get from customers.
Let’s jump right in …
What Are Amino Acids?
If proteins are the “building blocks of muscle,” amino acids are the building blocks of protein.
Your body uses amino acids to make proteins that help you break down food, grow/repair muscle and other body tissue, and perform many other functions.
There are around 500 amino acids scientists have discovered. Since only 20 appear in human genetic code, we refer to these as the “standard 20“. Here they are, in all their chemical compound glory:
Types of Amino Acids
1. Non-Essential Amino Acids
Your body makes 11 out of the 20 standard amino acids. This means it’s not “essential” to eat foods that contain them, since your body creates enough.
The 11 non-essential AAs include: alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
2. Essential Amino Acids
Unlike non-essential AAs, your body can’t make essential amino acids, which means you must get them from the foods you eat. The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
3. Conditional amino acids
Arginine has a star next to it in the image above because it’s also considered a “semi-essential”, or conditional amino acid. Your body only needs these types of AA’s in certain situations (when you’re stressed or sick, for example).
Conditional amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
So what happens when you don’t get enough essential amino acids in your diet?
First, a lack of essential amino acids from foods in your diet affects your body’s ability to use protein.
Protein deficiency impacts pretty much all of the body’s organs and systems.
Protein deficiency is one of the biggest public health problems in the world, accounting for about 30-40% of hospital admissions in developing countries.
However, most of you reading this don’t live in developing countries … so should protein deficiency really concern you?
Let’s find out the answer to one of the most common questions I get …
How do I determine how much protein I need?
The short answer: it depends.
The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.
However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).
It’s not necessarily optimal.
Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).
For healthy adults, low protein diets often lead to weight gain and increased fat mass.
Eating more protein can help increase levels of the hormone glucagon, which helps control body fat. It can also help strengthen bones as you age. And if you’re concerned about negative health effects of protein on kidney function, nearly all of these studies looked at animal sources of protein, not plant-based protein.
One of key indicators of the “quality” of a protein source is not whether or not it comes from a plant or animal … it’s the amount of BCAAs …
What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) and Why Do You Need Them?
Of the essential amino acids, three account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These are called Branched Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs.
Here’s a breakdown of each:
Leucine is arguably the most important BCAA because there’s clinical evidence that shows it helps your body synthesize protein. Aim for 2-3 grams of leucine per day for optimal protein synthesis. (Side Note: 1 serving of both Pure Food Protein flavors have 2 grams of leucine … more on this below)
Isoleucine is another BCAA. It can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
Researchers have yet to determine an “optimal” isoleucine level.
Valine is the third branched chain amino acid. Based on current research, it’s the least important BCAA for body composition. It’s also the least-studied, so I’ll report back when more clinical data becomes available.
Do You Need a BCAA Supplement?
Get your BCAAs from real food instead.
You may have seen BCAA supplement peddlers state that BCAAs may lead to anabolic effects before, during, and after exercise. However, there are zero double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that show BCAA supplementation is any more effective than getting your BCAAs from food.
If you eat the right amount of protein for your body type, composition, age, and health goals (see above), then there’s no reason to take a BCAA supplement.
Pure Food Amino Acid Chart: Essentials and BCAAs
Total BCAAs: 4.587 grams
Total BCAAs: 4.299 grams
Getting the right amount of essential amino acids, and particularly BCAAs, does a body good.
However, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to choke down whey protein shakes and eat bloody steaks every day to get your BCAAs.
Protein that comes from meat is not “superior” to protein that comes from plants. Research shows that both protein from plant sources and animal sources seem to work equally well in increasing muscle protein synthesis.
You don’t need a supplement either to get your BCAAs each day. Eat plenty of whole, plant-based foods and if you need a little extra protein (remember, athletes, active people, and older individuals do), consider a clean vegan protein powder like Pure Food, which has 4 grams of BCAAs.