Amino Acids, Protein, and Muscles
First, what are amino acids?
You’re probably familiar with amino acids. You’ve probably heard the term before, but you may not know what they are or how they work in your body.
At a very basic level, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are important for immune system function, muscle repair, and other bodily functions. Protein, made up of amino acids, is essential for growth and development, as well as day-to-day maintenance of your bodily tissues.
Amino acids are molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.
There are 20 different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and they can be classified by their structure: non-polar (hydrophobic), polar (hydrophilic) and ionic. They’re also classified by whether they contain an acidic group (-COOH), basic group (-NH2) or neutral group (-CNH2). All of that is much deeper than I intend to dive in this particular piece, but it’s just some thrown in trivia for you in case you ever get that question during Applebee’s trivia night.
You do need to know that 9 of them are considered essential, which means you body cannot make them by itself. They include: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Why are they important?
Amino acids are essential to life. They’re one of the building blocks of protein, and without enough amino acids in your body, you can’t produce hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes or antibodies—the things that keep your body working properly.
They also participate in several other processes. They help transport substances through the blood, they’re involved with growth and repair of body tissues, and they can even help form new blood cells when needed.
Do I need to eat animal products or can I get amino acids from plants?
You don’t NEED to consume animal products to get enough of the majority of amino acids. There are a few reasons why people might want to avoid animal products, such as medical conditions, religious beliefs, or a personal desire to just avoid animal products. If you’re a vegan, for example, that means no animals—including eggs and fish.
But even if you’re not vegan and just don’t like the idea of eating meat, there are other options for getting your amino acids. Legumes (peas and beans), dairy products (milk), or even some grains like quinoa can be good sources of amino acids.
However, when it comes to bioavailability—or how well your body absorbs them—animal protein reigns supreme over plant-based sources. Omnivores like humans need certain amino acids, referred to as Essential Amino Acids, that can only be found in entirety in other animal products at this point. Stack the bioavailability and the EAA arguments, and nutritionally the case can be made that humans 100% need various levels of animal products in our diets.
Now, you can stack certain plant based foods together and get close to a full amino profile (all 9 amino acids) but it’s incredibly difficult for most people to do.
What happens in your body when you don’t get enough protein?
Getting enough protein in your diet is VERY important. Protein deficiency can cause a number of problems, including:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Muscle wasting
- Hair loss (especially facial hair)
- Skin problems like acne or dryness
Protein deficiency can also weaken the immune system, which may make you more susceptible to illnesses. It can also increase your risk for osteoporosis because it doesn’t help balance the calcium levels in our body, which is needed to build new bone tissue and keep existing bones healthy.
How much protein do I need per day?
Protein deficiency is rare in the developed world, but it’s possible to become deficient if you don’t eat enough protein-rich foods.
There are a few ways to figure out how much protein you need:
- Ask your doctor or nutritionist to recommend a daily intake of grams per kilogram of body weight (g/kg bw) based on your current health and activity level
- Use an online calculator that takes into account age, sex, and weight
- Refer to the FDA Recommended Daily Intake guidelines for BARE MINIMUM requirements.
To make it easier for you, here are general MINIMUM requirements.
The protein requirement for the average adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or about 56 grams for someone who weighs around 160 pounds. This is the minimum amount that you need to maintain your health and stay in a healthy weight range, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough in your diet each day.
With all that said, all of those recommendations are going to be absolute, bare minimum, keep you alive levels of protein intake.
If you want to build lean mass, increase your metabolism a bit, or perform more athletically, you need more protein than bare minimum. Same can go for just feeling better, having better skin, and generally thriving.
I always tell people to shoot for 1g of protein per bodyweight pound up to a certain weight. 120, 140, even 200 grams of protein a day is not going to hurt you unless you have a kidney issue or liver problem. It’s easier to calculate, gets you enough to build lean mass while repairing existing tissue, and can work wonders in your body.
Eating a nutritious and varied diet will keep you from being deficient in any essential amino acids.
The body does not store amino acids, so you need to get them from food. If you eat a diverse and varied diet containing plenty of high-quality protein sources, it’s very unlikely that you will become deficient in any essential amino acid.
If you eat a well-balanced diet that includes animal protein, you will most likely get all the amino acids you need. But if you don’t eat animal protein, or even if you do but just want to make sure, there are many foods that contain high amounts of all nine essential amino acids (such as soybeans).
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