Proteins are large molecules responsible for almost every major function in the body. They build muscle, boost immunity, and even may help with weight management. Proteins are made of several amino acids majorly categorized as non-essential and essential. While the non-essential amino acids can be synthesized in the body, the essential acids cannot be. Hence, it is important to consume foods high in these amino acids.
In this article, you will learn about some of the best sources of essential amino acids, their benefits, and the potential side effects of taking them as supplements. Keep reading.
In This Article
Essential Amino Acids And Their Types
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Amino acids and proteins influence some of the major functions in your body and are responsible for effectively maintaining muscle, bone, and other lean tissues (1).
As many as 20 amino acids make up the body proteins. Amino acids are classified as essential, non-essential, and conditional (2).
Dr. Sunjya Schweig, MD, the founder of the California Center for Functional Medicine, says, “Nine of the 20 essential amino acids are ‘nutritionally indispensable,’ meaning our body cannot make them. These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. We have to get them from our food.”
“An additional six essential amino acids are considered ‘conditionally indispensable.’ Although the body can make these from other amino acids, they are insufficient. Hence, these amino acids likely need to come from dietary sources. The final five amino acids are ‘nutritionally dispensable’,” says Dr. Schweig.
Essential amino acids can easily be supplied to your body through food and supplements. But which foods are high in them? Continue reading to know.
Foods High In Amino Acids
Almost all foods have protein. This protein is broken down to supply your body with the essential amino acids. The easiest way to get these amino acids is through seafood as it contains easy-to-digest protein. However, Dr. Schweig suggests that seafood must be interspersed with other meats as well for better results. He recommends the following foods for each of the amino acids:
Essential Amino Acid
Foods To Eat
Poultry, fish, dairy, beans, eggs, cauliflower, mushrooms, bananas
Seaweed, turkey, chicken, fish, lamb, cheese, eggs
Hemp seed, beef, fish, almonds, chicken, eggs, beans, lentils, milk, rice
Red meat, pork, poultry, cod, sardines, eggs, fenugreek seeds
Eggs, fish, Brazil nuts, sesame seats, muscle meat
Beef, pork, poultry, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds
Dairy foods, fish, poultry, meat, lentils, sesame seeds, mushrooms, leafy vegetables
Eggs, fish, turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
Dairy products, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, mushrooms
Animal protein has all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. However, most plant proteins are incomplete. You have to consume a variety of plant proteins to get all the essential amino acids (3).
Studies recommended a protein intake of 0.8g/kg of body weight for adults under the age of 65 (4).
The foods mentioned above can be broadly classified into seven categories:
Fish like herrings, mackerels, mahi-mahi, salmon, and other shellfish are usually great sources of protein. Eating seafood is beneficial for overall health as it contains omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, iodine, high potassium, and low sodium concentrations, vitamins D, A, E, and B12, and taurine (5). Besides, seafood intake may help maintain heart and brain health (6).
2. Lean Meats
Chicken, beef, turkey, and tenderloin (all without any visible fats) are important sources of protein. They provide your body with selenium, vitamins B3 and B6, and choline. Lean meats may also help reduce weight as they have fewer calories than full meats. Intake of poultry meat may also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes (7).
3. Low-Fat Dairy Products
Milk, yogurt, and other dairy products are extremely rich in amino acids, calcium, riboflavin, potassium, magnesium, vitamins A and B12, zinc, and choline. Dairy products may help build strong bones and muscle, and maintain blood pressure as they are rich in calcium (8).
Eggs are an excellent source of protein, copper, iron, iodine, magnesium, manganese, selenium, and zinc. There are a total of 550 distinct proteins in the egg-white and yolk. Besides, they have antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties (9). Egg white protein was also found to improve muscle strength and increase immune cell activities (10),(11). Moreover, a moderate intake of eggs (one egg per day) was shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease among Asians (12).
Legumes like green peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas are the best protein sources if you are on a plant-based diet. Black-eyed peas, cannellini, cranberry, and beans like Great Northern, kidney, lima, mung, navy, pinto, and soybeans can be the perfect addition to your dishes. These vegetables help control blood sugar levels and reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure. These functions, in turn, help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (13).
Grains provide your body with proteins and most of the essential vitamins and minerals. Studies suggest that dietary whole grain intake may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal, pancreatic, and gastric cancers. The findings recommend a daily whole grain intake of 2 to 3 servings (~45g) (14). Whole grains also contain dietary fiber that can help reduce cholesterol, improve gut health, and reduce the risk of heart disease (15).
7. Nuts And Seeds
Pumpkin, chia, flax, sesame, poppy, and sunflower seeds provide essential amino acids. They are also rich in calcium, manganese, magnesium, potassium, plant iron and zinc, and dietary fiber. As a result, they may help reduce cholesterol, maintain blood pressure, and may reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and macadamias have a similar nutritional profile as the seeds mentioned above. Besides, they are high in monounsaturated fatty acids and have phytochemicals (plant chemicals) with antioxidant properties (16).
All these foods help your body get the essential amino acids naturally. However, you can also consider taking supplements. Let us explore how these supplements benefit your health in the following section.
Benefits Of Taking Amino Acid Supplements
“These supplements are often essential for athletes to build the necessary muscle mass required by their body to make up for the ensuing physical exertion,” says Abe Breuer, a New York State Emergency Medical Technician.
Amino acid supplements are usually available as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Some of their benefits include:
- Increasing antioxidant activity in the body (17).
- Improving muscle mass (17).
- Reducing muscle soreness after exercise (18).
- Improving appetite (19).
- Reducing symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy (loss of brain function due to buildup of toxins in the blood following liver cirrhosis)(20).
- Maintaining symptoms of phenylketonuria, a disease caused by deficiency of an enzyme that converts phenylalanine (amino acid) into tyrosine (also an amino acid) (21). The dietary supplements are specialized in this case.
While the supplements can positively impact your body, they can be disadvantageous as well. Some experts have weighed in on the drawbacks of taking amino acid supplements. Let us look at them.
Risks Of Taking Amino Acid Supplements
“Amino acid supplements can impact your blood sugar levels. This means that you should avoid them before and after surgery. Many experts advise against taking supplements that contain a single amino acid,” warns Nadia Charif, a health and fitness adviser.
Breuer says, “Amino acid supplements carry a significant risk of inducing side effects like nausea, bloating, unstable blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and so on. Moreover, they easily react with other medications and should not be used without consulting a medical expert.”
“Higher protein intake can also increase blood sugar levels. So, someone dealing with unstable blood sugar or diabetes may want to consult their healthcare provider before starting a supplement,” says Amy Goodrich, registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Leading Edge Nutrition LLC.
Sometimes, your body may drop certain hints flagging the insufficient intake of protein. What are they?
Signs You Are Not Getting Enough Protein
Some of the visible signs of protein deficiency are:
- Edema or fluid buildup in your limbs (22)
- Muscle wasting (muscle atrophy) (23)
- Anemia (24)
- Slow growth in children(25)
Matt Scarfo, a NASM-certified fitness nutrition specialist, says, “If you are not getting enough protein, you may experience swelling in your legs, feet, and hands besides fatigue and slow-healing injuries.”
“Common symptoms of amino acid deficiency include lapse in concentration, fatigue, memory loss, general weakness, mood swings, and food cravings, especially on unhealthy grabs,” informs Tom Miller, a fitness trainer and a content strategist at FitnessVolt.
Hence, look for any symptoms that your body might show as they could be signs of protein deficiency.
Amino acids perform several key functions in the body, and their levels must be maintained properly to avoid undesirable effects. Essential amino acids can only be obtained through diet or supplementation as the body cannot synthesize them. Hence, consume amino acid-rich foods like seafood, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans, and lean meats. You can also add dairy products and eggs to your diet. If you follow a plant-based diet, make sure to include more cereals and grains along with your nuts, seeds, vegetables, and beans. Moreover, you can take amino acid supplements if your doctor suggests them. But be wary of any potential side effects of supplements. Consult your doctor for more information.
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