Amino Acids: Hype or Helpful?

Intro to Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The 20 basic amino acids are shuttled into our body’s cells and put together like impossibly complex jigsaw puzzles – in billions of different yet incredibly precise ways -- to create the exact structures the body needs to function and stay healthy. Protein is found in every cell in our bodies. When we think of protein in our body, most of us think of muscle. But all tissues – skin, organs, bone – are made of protein. Those compounds that keep us alive, the hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune components, are made largely of protein. Even DNA, our genetic material, depend on a precisely choreographed interplay between amino acids and other cellular compounds.

The only way we can get the protein we need for good health is through food (or supplements, which are largely derived from food). Some of the amino acids are required directly from what we consume (these are called “essential” amino acids, of which there are nine) and others can be synthesized from amino acids inside cells (the 12 “nonessential” amino acids).

Protein deficiency is extremely rare in general, and almost unheard of in people who are getting adequate calories in their diet. That’s because practically all foods (exceptions are pure fats, like oil, and pure sugars) contain at least some protein. Meat and poultry contain around 20-40% of calories from protein, and even vegetables are up there in the teens, twenties, and even thirties (Swiss chard has a surprising 38% of its calories from protein). Whole grains contain protein percentages in the teens; nuts and seeds supply around 10-15%; and beans and lentils have percentages in the 20’s. Fruits, as a group, contain the least protein, mainly in the single digits as a percent. At the end of the day, though, the overall percentage of protein eaten will meet or exceed our needs, because, according to the National Institutes of Health, we only need about 10% of calories from protein to support the body’s needs, and the average protein intake in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is about 16%.

Even vegetarians, who consume plants that may be low in one or another amino acid, are not at notable risk because the body stores free amino acids over time, ready to be combined with others as they are available. So there’s no need to complement plant foods to obtain a “complete” protein at a meal. 

A lot of emphasis is put on getting the “right” balance of amino acids in the diet. But for most people, simply being adequately nourished is good enough to achieve optimal protein status. However, for those who are looking for an edge at the gym, there’s something to be said about strategic amino acid intake.

Enter… Branched Chained Amino Acids.

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA), so named for their similar chemical structure, include leucine, valine & isoleucine. All three are essential; we need to get them from foods or supplements. BCAAs comprise about a third of the amino acids in the body, and are found predominantly in our muscles. Taken as a supplement, BCAAs appear to stimulate muscle building, reduce muscle breakdown and fatigue, speed recovery, decrease the loss of other amino acids from muscle during exercise, and help the body absorb proteins. Unlike other amino acids, BCAA’s are metabolized in the muscle and not the liver.

Because BCAAs are anabolic (muscle building) and anti-catabolic (muscle breakdown), they are most effective taken before and during intense workouts. In addition to benefits delivered to the muscle, BCAAs also stimulate the release of growth hormone and IGF-1, and help maintain an ideal testosterone to cortisol ratio, which enhances performance during your workout.

So, we recommend BCAAs not necessarily to supplement your dietary protein intake, but to give you the upper hand in the weight room. An allowed supplement, BCAAs are an indispensable supplement for most body builders and physique competitors.

To optimize protein intake in the diet, don’t focus so much on the amino acid breakdown in foods; rather, incorporate a wide variety of healthful foods. Include protein at every meal and snack. And remember, protein is not only animal flesh and eggs. Vegetables, beans, whole grains, most dairy, and nuts and seeds all contribute to healthy protein intake and support optimal health.

by Brianna Diorio

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