Nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. It all comes down to feeding our bodies what they need to survive and thrive—especially as we age. Amino acids are a central component of nutrition, regardless of our chosen diet.
Amino acids are called “the building blocks of life” because they make up proteins, which are needed in most of the biological processes in our bodies. There are different types of amino acids; some can be made by the body, others come through the food we eat—these last ones are called essential amino acids.
To understand why some foods should be part of our diet, we must first understand the relationship between proteins and amino acids. The specific arrangement of aminos determines the type of protein and its function. Every single amino is essential to the process—if one is missing, malfunctioning, or misplaced, the protein cannot be made. Foods high in amino acids contain all nine essential amino acids, and for this reason, they are called complete protein foods.
So, what foods have the amino acids our body needs?
Amino Acids Foods
Grass-fed meat is one of the best proteins. Lean cuts of beef provide about 31 grams in each 3-ounce serving—fattier cuts of meat are lower in protein per gram. The amount of protein relative to the calories in the food source is excellent with meat, but the non-protein component of meat is saturated fat, which in the past has been associated with health risks, including heart disease and obesity. Recent research is shedding new light on this topic, and the most current USDA dietary guidelines are not as restrictive with regard to saturated fat. Still, eating meat in moderation remains advisable.
POULTRY and SEAFOOD
White meat is a great source of protein and has less cholesterol and saturated fat than red meat does. A 3-ounce serving of chicken or turkey breast has about 28 grams of protein. Fish contains a little less protein but is still an excellent amino acid-rich food. A 3-ounce serving of halibut, tuna, or salmon contains about 22 grams.
EGGS and DAIRY
Just one egg has about 6 grams of protein. One cup of milk delivers 8 grams of protein. A 1-ounce slice of nonfat mozzarella contains 9 grams of protein (1 gram more of the same amount of low-fat Swiss cheese). Parmesan cheese is an excellent choice because each ounce contains 10 grams of protein. A cup of yogurt has 8 to 12 grams of protein. Eggs and dairy are the best vegetarian protein sources.
QUINOA and SOY
Quinoa and soy products provide all the essential amino acids. A cup of cooked quinoa contains about 8 grams of protein, a 3-ounce serving of tofu has 6 grams of protein and a cup of soybeans has 29 grams of protein. Quinoa and soy are the best vegan protein sources.
Among the foods that contain incomplete proteins (missing one or more amino acids) or proteins low in certain key essential amino acids, we find cereals, legumes, grain products, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. People who follow a vegan diet have a harder time meeting their amino acids needs. Many nutrition-focused websites suggest food combinations of two incomplete proteins to form a complementary protein that should contain a sufficient amount of essential amino acids. But it’s important to note that these combinations are not perfect—unfortunately, most vegan amino acids contain a limited amount of lysine.
Luckily, amino acid supplements are available to help us nurture our bodies with the amino acids it needs to thrive. Essential amino acids supplements can provide benefits that even the highest quality dietary proteins cannot. Many protein powders on the market are loaded with carbs and added sugars, so choosing a low-calorie amino acid complex, specifically designed to help us with our amino acid requirements, is crucial.
Clinical trials have shown that essential amino acid supplements can enhance muscle strength and mass, control plasma lipid levels, reduce liver fat, and speed recovery from severe injury or surgery. Before choosing a supplement, you should know that many amino acid supplements on the market don’t take into consideration one crucial aspect: all amino acids need to be present in their optimal amount for supplements to be truly beneficial.