Nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. It all comes down to feeding our bodies what they need to survive and thrive—especially as we age. And a central component of optimal nutrition is adequate intake of amino acids. In fact, amino acids are known as the building blocks of life because they make up proteins, which are needed to carry out almost every biological process in the body. While our bodies can manufacture the so-called nonessential amino acids on their own, the essential amino acids must be obtained through the foods we eat. To ensure we’re getting optimal levels of these little building blocks of protein, it’s helpful to know what foods provide the best sources of amino acids. So what are the foods high in amino acids, you ask? Read on to find out.
Protein and Amino Acids
To understand why certain food sources should be included as part of our diet, it’s important to first understand the relationship between protein and amino acids.
Every protein in the human body is made up of specific arrangements of amino acids. These arrangements determine both the type of protein and its function. Each and every amino acid is essential to this process. If even one is missing, malfunctioning, or misplaced, protein synthesis can’t occur. And without protein synthesis, protein can’t be made.
As you might imagine, this can have a negative effect on every cell in the body. Therefore, it’s crucial that we eat foods that are high in the nine essential amino acids.
By including complete protein foods—as well as a wide array of incomplete protein foods—in the diet, we can ensure that proteins are created in sufficient amounts to support optimal health.
Foods High in Amino Acids
If you’re wondering what sources of protein can supply your body with all the different amino acids it needs to manage everything from muscle growth to immune system health and neurotransmitter production, you’ll be pleased to know that good sources exist in a variety of plant and animal foods.
When it comes to animal protein, grass-fed beef offers one of the best sources of amino acids there is. Unlike meats with higher fat content, such as pork, grass-fed beef is leaner and contains roughly 10% to 30% more protein per ounce. And its approximately 10 grams of protein per ounce means that grass-fed beef also provides an excellent source of protein relative to the amount of calories.
However, the non-protein component of all red meat is saturated fat, which has been associated with health risks, including heart disease and obesity when consumed in too high amounts. So it’s best not to rely on meat as your main source of protein.
Like red meat, poultry is a great source of protein. Not only does it contain 9 grams of protein per ounce, but it also comes with the added benefit of lower levels of both cholesterol and saturated fat.
While fish contains a little less protein than both poultry and red meat, it’s still an excellent source of amino acids. Different fish species also contain different amounts of protein, but the richest sources are tuna, salmon, and halibut, all of which provide approximately 7 grams of protein per ounce.
Eggs and Dairy Products
When it comes to vegetarian sources of protein, eggs and dairy products are two of the best. In fact, just one egg has about 6 grams of protein. And where dairy products are concerned, the ratio of protein to calories only rises with low-fat and non-fat options.
For example, 1 ounce of non-fat mozzarella cheese contains 9 grams of protein, and an ounce of Parmesan contains 10 grams. Likewise, a cup of yogurt provides 8 to 12 grams of protein, depending on fat content.
The exception to the rule, however, is milk. Because the difference in the amount of fat between whole and non-fat milk is so slim, a cup of any type of milk will contain approximately 8 grams of protein.
If plant protein is more your thing, it’s helpful to note that quinoa and soy products are two of the best vegan protein sources available, as both provide all the essential amino acids. You’ll also find 8 grams of protein in a cup of cooked quinoa, while a cup of soybeans has 29 grams of protein and tofu contains 2 grams per ounce.
But there’s more good news because several other plant-based foods are considered complete proteins too. These include:
- Hemp seeds
- Ezekiel bread
- Peanut butter
- Chia seeds
Legumes, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are among the foods that are considered incomplete proteins—due to their low levels or complete lack of one or more of the essential amino acids. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t fret.
Although experts used to recommend that incomplete proteins be consumed together (like beans and rice) to compensate for each other’s lack, this is no longer the case. In fact, it’s been shown that an optimal amino acid profile is perfectly obtainable by eating a variety of protein sources over the course of the day.
Some of the best incomplete proteins to include in your diet are:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black beans
However, it’s still important to be aware that most plant proteins are deficient in the amino acid lysine, so individuals who follow a vegan diet need to pay particularly close attention to their food choices. To that end, it might be wise to consider supplementing with a synergistic blend of essential amino acids to make sure you’re getting all the amino acids your body needs.
Moreover, essential amino acid supplements can provide benefits that even the highest quality dietary proteins can’t. For one thing, many protein powders—including whey protein powders—are loaded with carbohydrates and added sugars. So by choosing a low-calorie amino acid supplement, you can help meet your amino acid requirements while simultaneously keeping your body weight down.
What’s more, numerous clinical trials have shown that essential amino acid supplements can enhance muscle mass, increase strength, control plasma lipid levels, reduce liver fat, and speed recovery from injury—benefits that can make amino acid supplements a powerful addition to the diet.
But before you decide to add supplemental amino acids to your diet, it’s important to note that many supplements don’t take into consideration the fact that amino acids work best when used in concert. So be sure to look for a formula that provides a balanced supply of all the essential amino acids.