What are amino acids, and what makes some of them essential while others are nonessential? Learn more about what amino acids do for your body and how you can make sure you are getting the full range you need to stay healthy.

Aren’t All Amino Acids Essential?

An amino acid is an organic compound used to create proteins in the body. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of life. When your body digests proteins, it breaks them down into amino acids, which are then used to make more proteins. It may sound confusing, but let’s look at the difference among the three types of amino acids. We have nonessential amino acids that can be made by the body, even if we don’t consume food that help us make them. Conditional amino acids are usually only essential during times of stress and illness. Essential amino acids are not made by the body, so we HAVE to get them through our food. There are nine essential amino acids required for adults, and they are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Children have an extra essential amino acid called arginine, but once a person reaches adulthood, this amino acid is no longer essential.

What Foods Have Essential Amino Acids?

Because essential amino acids can’t be made by the body, it needs a little outside help – we have to eat these amino acids in our foods and let our body do the rest of the work. Luckily, some foods are packed with proteins and thus, essential amino acids. In fact, meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, and seafood will each provide ALL nine essential amino acids. However, because some of these foods can also be high in fat, it’s best to opt for lean options so you don’t overdo it. If you do not eat any animal products (called veganism), you can combine different types of plant-based foods to meet your amino acid needs. Beans, brown rice, tofu, lentils, and nuts each have SOME of the essential amino acids but are not as complete as the animal-based foods. So, you should eat several types of plant foods every day, and this will help you get all those nutrients you need to stay healthy. To give you a ballpark figure, approximately 10-35% of your daily food intake should be proteins. If you are concerned you aren’t getting all of the essential amino acids you need, you can always work with a nutritionist to identify the best combinations of foods you like that will meet your needs.

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Examples of foods that contain each type of essential amino acid (plus a few extras)

What Happens if You Don’t Get All of Your Essentials?

Without the proper amino acids in the body, the body will start to break down its current muscle supply to meet its needs. The body does not store excess amino acids for future use (like it does with fats and starches), so there is no reservoir to pull from when intake gets low. Additionally, proteins are responsible for kick-starting most of the reactions that take place in living cells and control almost all cellular processes. So you can see it’s best not to have a shortage of proteins and amino acids if you like your body functioning the way it should!

Lesson Summary

What have we learned about the essential amino acids? Well, first, we know that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and are required by our body in order for it to function properly! There are three categories of amino acids, one of which is essential amino acids, or those that cannot be synthesized (made) in the body. Thus, we have to eat foods that contain these types of amino acids so that things continue to run smoothly. Children have 10 types of essential amino acids, while adults have nine. Animal products contain all of these, but different combinations of plant-based foods will also provide the full spectrum. By eating a varied, healthy diet, you can ensure your body is getting all of the nutrients it needs so it doesn’t have to resort to breaking down its own muscle mass to get those essential amino acids!