Amino acids, often referred to as the building blocks of the human body, are compounds that play many critical roles in nutrition. They’re needed for vital processes like the building of proteins and synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. Some may also be taken in supplement form for a natural way to boost athletic performance or improve mood. They’re categorized as essential, conditionally essential or nonessential depending on whether the body can synthesize them or they need to be consumed.
What Are Essential Amino Acids?
Amino acids are organic compounds composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, along with a variable side chain group. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to grow and function properly.
Though all 20 of these are important for your health, only nine amino acids are classified as essential.
These are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
Food Sources and Recommended Intake
Since your body cannot produce essential amino acids, they must be provided through your diet. Fortunately, many foods are rich in essential amino acids, making it easy to meet your daily needs.
The US recommended daily allowances per 1 kg of body weight for the nine essential amino acids are:
- Histidine:14 mg
- Isoleucine:19 mg
- Leucine:42 mg
- Lysine:38 mg
- Methionine (+ the non-essential amino acid cysteine):19 mg
- Phenylalanine (+ the non-essential amino acid tyrosine):33 mg
- Threonine:20 mg
- Tryptophan:5 mg
- Valine:24 mg
Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are referred to as complete proteins. Complete protein sources include:
- Dairy Products
Soy, quinoa and buckwheat are plant-based foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, making them complete protein sources as well. Other plant based sources like beans and nuts are considered incomplete, as they lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
However, if you’re following a plant-based diet, you can still ensure proper intake of all essential amino acids as long as you eat a variety of plant proteins each day.
For example, choosing a variety of incomplete proteins such as beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetables can ensure that your essential amino acid needs are met, even if you choose to exclude animal products from your die.
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