Amino acids are vital to life and health. They build protein in the body, which helps to make up tendons, muscles, organs, nails and hair. The whole body depends on amino acids, and we couldn’t function without them. When you realise that protein makes up the second highest proportion of body weight – water is highest – it becomes clear just how important amino acids are to the body.
There are around eighty amino acids in nature. Of these, about twenty are required for human growth and development. Ten of the amino acids required must come from the diet, as the body cannot manufacture them, and these are the essential amino acids. They include isoleucine, which regulates blood sugar and energy levels and is needed for haemoglobin production, leucine, which promotes healing and assists in growth hormone production, and trytophan, which acts as a relaxant and appetite suppressant, as well as helping the immune system to operate effectively.
Almost every chemical process in the body is dependent on amino acids, and, as they can’t be stored, it’s important to take in the correct amount of each of the essential amino acids. Otherwise the body will break down its own healthy muscle in an attempt to make good the deficiency.
The main sources of essential amino acids are animal foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy foods, fish and seafood. These are convenient sources of essential amino acids, as they contain all the amino acids in the specific amounts your body needs. Soy products also contain all the amino acids in the right proportions. These foods are known as complete proteins.
As it’s unhealthy to eat too much fat, and as most proteins have a certain amount of fat, choose lean meat and poultry, and cook your proteins without additional fat if possible. Grill, bake or poach, rather than fry. If you must fry, opt for stir frying, which uses less oil, or cook with olive oil, which is healthier than most other fats.
While most plant foods also contain essential amino acids, they are present in varying amounts. Therefore, if you rely on plant based foods for most of your protein requirements, you should ensure you eat a varied diet, in order to obtain all the essential amino acids your body needs. In any case, you should be eating a varied diet to ensure adequate intake of all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients essential to good health.