Amino Acids vs. Protein Powder: Which Supplement Should You Take?

While amino acids are the victor in the amino acids vs. protein powder debate, it’s not really an either/or situation. Whey protein and amino acids can work synergistically to produce superior results. Find out how!

If you’re interested in how sports nutrition can support your muscle growth goals, you almost certainly know that a diet rich in high-quality protein sources is a prerequisite for anyone working to build muscle. Given that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, it’s only logical that they would be just as crucial. While it may seem like amino acids supplements and protein powders serve the same purpose, that’s not quite accurate. So, in the amino acids vs. protein powder showdown, which contender triumphs?

Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of both amino acids and protein powder.

The Case for Protein Powder

Any dietician will tell you that consuming an optimal quantity of high-quality dietary protein is linked to myriad health benefits. Our bodies use protein for building muscle tissue as well as other tissues such as skin, hair, and nails. Some common protein sources include meat, fish, and poultry as well as vegan options like soy protein, legumes, and nuts.

If you’re not sure how much protein you should be getting each day, this article can help you calculate an appropriate intake based on both your weight and activity level. Athletes in particular can find it difficult to meet their body’s protein needs through diet alone, and protein powders can be a valuable resource for making up the difference.

There are many different varieties of protein powders on the market. In addition to checking the amount of protein per gram, it’s important to distinguish between single protein supplements and blended protein supplements. The former contain just one type of protein, for example, grass-fed whey or a plant protein like soy or pea. The latter contain a blend of two or more types of protein, which can lead to a sustained release of amino acids. The quality of the ingredients remains crucial to the efficacy of both types of protein powders (we’ll delve into the question of quality assurance more deeply in a later section).

Protein powders made with complete proteins such as whey or casein contain all nine essential amino acids (EAAs) your body requires for sustained muscle growth and recovery, among other bodily functions.

Each type of protein powder has its own unique profile. Whey protein, for instance, digests and absorbs quickly, making it a good pick for a post-workout protein shake. Casein protein, however, absorbs much more slowly, making it ideal for your final dose of protein before bed as the amino acids it contains will release steadily throughout the night, fueling muscle repair as you sleep.

The Case for Amino Acids

Amino acids carry out a range of vital functions in the body. Not only do they propel muscle growth, but they also contribute to the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, co-enzymes, and other important biochemical messengers, as well as encouraging wound healing and strengthening immune responses.

There are 20 amino acids necessary for human health and well-being. Nine are known as essential amino acids (EAAs) because the human body cannot produce them, so it’s essential that we supply them via our diet or supplements. As touched on in the previous section, proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids are called complete proteins.

Three of the nine essential amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—account for 35% of human muscle tissue. These power players, known as the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have a major influence on muscle protein synthesis. Leucine has the most demonstrable impact, but it can only work to its full potential when ingested with the appropriate ratios of the other two BCAAs and the remaining EAAs.

In fact, a significant advantage amino acid powder has over protein powder is that amino acid mixtures can be formulated exactly as desired. Precise mixtures of amino acids can be produced that target specific metabolic issues. Dietary proteins as well as protein powder supplements contain a range of amino acids including both essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids, in varying concentrations. Consequently, they cannot reliably target a specific amino-acid related metabolic response.

It’s also important to note that free-form amino acids can be completely absorbed more rapidly than any intact protein, including whey protein. When you ingest a mixture of free-form essential amino acids, the corresponding peak concentrations are higher and are achieved more rapidly.

As with protein powders, it’s common to find both single amino acid supplements as well as blended amino acid supplements. Popular picks for single amino acid supplements include leucine and glutamine. Blended supplements may feature a few amino acids with notably desirable effects, like the BCAAs, or the full range of EAAs. You can typically find amino acid supplements in both tablet and powder form.

Amino Acids vs. Protein Powder: Which Supplement Should You Take?

Amino Acids vs. Protein Powder—The Bottom Line

Protein powders offer an efficient, cost-effective way to increase your total protein intake while providing the caloric fuel your body needs to complete and recover from challenging workouts. They can fuel your muscle-building efforts and fill in any dietary gaps you might have at the same time.

Amino acid supplements, on the other hand, can precisely target various metabolic and physiological processes far more precisely than protein powders can. They can also be absorbed and utilized much more rapidly, meaning you will see more dramatic results faster.

What’s the Best Boost for Muscle Protein Synthesis?

Whey protein is a “fast” protein, which means it is digested and absorbed at a faster rate than other dietary proteins. But free-form amino acids surpass the absorption characteristics of even the fastest protein. The result is that the metabolic response to free amino acid supplements often surpasses the maximal effect that can be achieved with intact protein such as whey, and often with a smaller dose.

The figure below illustrates the advantages of supplementing with free-form essential amino acid mixtures when it comes to spiking muscle protein synthesis. Participants supplemented with three different doses—3.6 grams, 6.7 grams, and 15 grams—of a balanced mixture of all the free-form essential amino acids. Researchers then compared the results to those produced by 15 grams of whey protein and to those of a partial essential amino acid mixture of only branched-chained amino acids (BCAAs). An amino acid powder supplement formulated with all essential amino acids is the clear muscle protein synthesis booster.

Amino Acids vs. Protein Powder: Which Supplement Should You Take?

We can see how the increase in muscle protein synthesis is more responsive to essential amino acids. The ratios of essential amino acids in amino acid powders can also be optimized. A properly formulated essential amino acid supplement can be 3 times as effective as a whey protein powder supplement.

Combining Amino Acids and Protein Powder for Optimal Results

While essential amino acids are more potent than whey protein, there are advantages to combining aminos with whey as part of a muscle-building amino acid powder supplement. Whey protein is digested over a longer time frame than free-form essential amino acids are, and, as far as intact proteins go, has a good balance of essential amino acids (about 45% of the total).

When you consume whey protein with essential amino acids, you prolong the beneficial effects of the aminos. So, while amino acids are the victor in the amino acids vs. protein powder debate, it’s not really an either/or situation. Whey protein and amino acids can work synergistically to produce superior results.

How to Check the Quality of Protein Supplements

The discerning customer knows what he or she wants, but the information provided about a product is often limited to the label on the package. Unfortunately, labels can range from uninformative to downright deceptive.

For example, it is not unusual for as little as 60% of the calories in a “pure whey protein” product to actually come from whey protein, with the balance of calories being comprised of carbohydrate and fat. The lesson is this: Buyer beware! Don’t just buy on the basis of product name. Dig deep into what the product actually provides.

Another labeling issue of considerable concern is how to figure out the relative proportions of different proteins in a protein mixture. Most supplements include some whey protein, as it is widely accepted as one of the highest quality proteins. However, because of cost and certain characteristics, other proteins are often included, such as soy and collagen.

Labeling rarely includes the proportion of each protein. Consequently, the true protein quality of some supplements is uncertain. Ingredients are listed in order of descending quantity, so the first ingredient listed should ideally be a high-quality protein such as whey.

Finally, it is the right of consumers to get what the product promises. Often, this is not the case. Spot-checking of nutritional supplements has revealed that the actual contents do not always match the labeling. There can be ingredients lurking in protein supplement products that aren’t even listed on the label.

For this reason, it is advisable to only buy supplements whose contents have been certified by an independent source, such as US Pharmacopeia. Barring that, at least check the website of the producer to determine if they have the appropriate certifications.

This issue is of particular concern for athletes who could be unwittingly consuming banned substances. Numerous cases of positive tests for banned substances have occurred because an ingredient was included in a supplement but not mentioned in the packaging. Although the industry has been making progress in cleaning up this problem, it still persists. Protein supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so the responsibility falls on the consumer to deal only with reputable suppliers.

Amino Acids for Insomnia: What Causes Those Restless Nights and Tips for Sweet Sleep

If you’re like many other adults, you’ve spent more than one night tossing and turning with sleeplessness. Insomnia impacts energy level, mood, and health. Amino acids can be helpful in treating insomnia.

If you’re like many other adults, you’ve spent more than one night tossing and turning with sleeplessness. According to the American Sleep Association, 30% of American adults have occasional insomnia, while 10% have chronic insomnia. Although many of us think that insomnia is just a side effect of modern life, poor sleep can lead to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, colon cancer, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and dementia. Thankfully, however, amino acids may be all you need to get the restful sleep you’ve been craving. So if you’re curious to learn how amino acids for insomnia can help you get a good night’s sleep, you’ve come to the right place.

What Causes Insomnia?

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the United States. While many people experience occasional episodes of acute insomnia, which may last days or weeks, some deal with chronic insomnia, which may last for a month or more.

Whether acute or chronic, insomnia can be caused by a number of different factors, from an imbalance in brain chemicals to other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. In addition, conditions like anxiety and depression as well as lifestyle factors, such as watching television before bed, using stimulants like nicotine or caffeine, or sleeping in a room that’s too hot or cold, can all cause insomnia.

Additional factors that can increase your risk of insomnia include:

  • Stress: When you’re under stress, it can be difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Moreover, the release of stress hormones can make it difficult to reach restorative deep sleep, which can leave you feeling even more stressed when you wake up.
  • Poor sleep habits: Napping, getting into bed at a different time each day, and using your bed for working, eating, or computer or cell phone activity can all lead to insomnia.
  • Eating before bed: Eating a large meal before bed can make you feel too uncomfortable to fall asleep or cause acid reflux, which can lead to insomnia. Likewise, eating high-carbohydrate foods can cause a quick surge of energy when you need to be winding down. So if you eat anything before bed, it should be a light, protein-rich snack that stabilizes your blood sugar and doesn’t fill you up.
  • Sleep pattern disruptions: Disturbances to your circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, caused by odd work schedules or travel that takes you across time zones can lead to insomnia.
  • Medical conditions: Health problems like chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma can all lead to symptoms of insomnia.
  • Medications: Certain medications, such as antidepressants, medications for asthma and high blood pressure, and over-the-counter cold and allergy medications that contain stimulants, may lead to insomnia.

Many people with insomnia rely on sleeping pills to fall asleep. However, these types of medications can have negative side effects, including daytime grogginess and an increased risk of falling. And getting into the habit of using conventional sleep aids to get to sleep every night brings with it a very real risk of addiction, which can make insomnia even worse.

However, supplying the body with the nutrients it requires can support a healthy sleep-wake cycle and help you get the better sleep you need.

Amino Acids for Insomnia

Amino acids are known as the building blocks of life because we must have them to create the proteins our bodies use for almost every biological process. And some amino acids have been found to be especially effective at creating the conditions necessary for healthy sleep. These are:

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
  • L-theanine
  • L-tryptophan
  • Glycine

GABA

GABA is an amino acid that also acts as the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system. This inhibitory action means that GABA is helpful in aiding relaxation and shortening the time it takes to fall asleep. In fact, a 2008 study found that levels of GABA are approximately 30% lower in people with insomnia.

In addition, a study from 2010 demonstrated that a combination of GABA and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)—an amino acid that acts as a precursor of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in both mood and sleep—can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase both sleep quality and the amount of sleep achieved.

And if you’re interested in raising levels of GABA on your own, try exercising. A 2013 study found that vigorous exercise leads to increased levels of GABA, which helps explain why exercise is known to improve sleep.

L-Theanine

L-theanine is an amino acid that was first discovered in green tea in 1949. Like all amino acids, L-theanine works in concert with other amino acids, and it’s known to increase levels of GABA—as well as the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. A 2019 study found that a combination of GABA and L-theanine works better than either alone to reduce sleep latency and improve duration of sleep. In addition, GABA and L-theanine were found to significantly increase both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep.

L-Tryptophan

Like 5-HTP, the amino acid L-tryptophan also functions as a precursor of serotonin. Moreover, L-tryptophan is converted in the body into 5-HTP, which is then converted into serotonin. Interestingly, studies have shown that 5-HTP crosses the blood-brain barrier at a higher rate than L-tryptophan and may be even more effective as a dietary supplement.

Part of serotonin’s role in sleep has to do with the fact that it acts as a precursor of melatonin—the hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. When levels of both serotonin and melatonin are low, sleep suffers. By increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, amino acids like 5-HTP and tryptophan help increase feelings of well-being and regulate sleep.

Studies have also shown that L-tryptophan can induce a state of subjective sleepiness and decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. And a study from 2018 found that L-tryptophan is not only helpful for sleep but can also aid conditions as diverse as autism, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Glycine

Like GABA, glycine acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter and plays a role in promoting sleep. However, glycine has the added benefit of lowering body temperature, which makes falling and staying asleep easier.

In addition, a 2012 study found that glycine can significantly reduce fatigue and sleepiness in people experiencing sleep deprivation. Moreover, similar to 5-HTP and L-tryptophan, glycine helps increase serotonin levels and correct circadian rhythm disorders.

If you’re suffering from insomnia and interested in avoiding the potential side effects and risks inherent in pharmaceutical approaches and would like to begin a program of amino acid supplementation instead, it’s important to be aware that amino acids work best when used as part of a balanced formula that contains all essential amino acids.

So be sure to look for a supplement that provides a balanced supply of all essential amino acids while also emphasizing amino acids for insomnia. In this way, you’ll be providing your brain with the fuel it needs to create the perfect conditions for optimal sleep.

It’s also a good idea to remember that insomnia may be a sign of a more serious medical condition, so if your symptoms get worse or don’t improve, speak with your health care provider about additional treatment options.

Amino Acids for Insomnia: What Causes Those Restless Nights and Tips for Sweet Sleep

How Many Grams of Amino Acids Do You Need a Day?

The ideal daily dose of amino acids varies based on factors such as your physical size, body weight, lean body mass, activity level, and so on. Before exploring how those factors affect how many grams of amino acids you need in a day, let’s review why you need amino acids to begin with.

When it comes to how many grams of amino acids you need in a day the dose is generally referred to in gram amounts. How the body responds to essential amino acids depends on how many grams it gets. A dose of as few as 3 grams can stimulate muscle protein synthesis significantly.

That said, the ideal daily dose of amino acids varies based on factors such as your physical size, body weight, lean body mass, activity level, and so on. Before exploring how those factors affect how many grams of amino acids you need in a day, let’s review why you need amino acids to begin with.

Why You Need Amino Acids

It’s common to see amino acids referred to as the building blocks of protein. And in fact, all dietary protein sources (both animal and plant proteins) contain the same 20 amino acids. However, the proportion of amino acids varies from protein to protein.

Over the course of the day, your body utilizes and recycles substantially more protein than most people consume in a day. Amino acids can be reutilized to some extent, but it’s still crucial to ensure your body gets a good, steady supply of these vital compounds. Regardless of your age, according to the United States National Research Council Subcommittee on Recommended Dietary Allowances, “A continuous supply of dietary amino acids is required to replace these losses, even after growth has ceased.”

Humans can’t synthesize 9 of the 20 amino acids. What this means is that the only ones available to carry out the many vital tasks for which amino acids are responsible are the ones you absorb from your dietary protein intake. For this reason, those nine—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—are called the essential amino acids.

Three of the essential amino acids, isoleucine, leucine, and valine, belong to a subgroup called the branched-chain amino acids. They’re often singled out from other amino acids and are particularly popular among athletes because they’ve been shown to enhance exercise performance, reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery, revamp body composition, and activate muscle protein synthesis.

The 11 remaining amino acids are considered nonessential, not because the body does not need them just as much as the essential amino acids for muscle growth and other vital functions but because the body can synthesize them.

A further seven of these can become indispensable under certain circumstances, for instance, if a person has liver damage. Those are known as conditionally essential amino acids.

While different amino acids have their own unique traits and responsibilities, for optimal health and wellness, you’ll have to provide all 20 amino acids your body needs—and provide them in the appropriate concentrations.

How Many Grams of Amino Acids Do You Need in a Day?

When determining how much of a nutrient you need a day, it is customary to consider macronutrients in the diet (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) as a percent of total caloric intake. But when it comes to how many grams of amino acids you need in a day the dose is generally referred to in gram amounts. The number of calories in a pure essential amino acid (EAA) supplement, for instance, is insignificant in the context of total caloric intake, and for this reason supplements are generally sold in gram (g) units.

The Standard: A 3-Gram Dose of Amino Acids

How the body responds to EAAs depends on how many grams it gets. A dose of as few as 3 grams can stimulate muscle protein synthesis significantly. Consuming a 3-gram EAA supplement can generate almost 6 grams of muscle protein—the perfect balance of EAAs enables the muscle to incorporate every single one of the EAAs into protein. The body also reuses readily available nonessential amino acids to contribute to the total amount of protein produced.

While a 3-gram dose can be effective over time, the amount of muscle protein made from that small dose is limited to the amount of EAAs consumed relative to the size of the muscle mass. While the production of 6 grams of muscle protein from 3 grams of EAAs is impressive, it is not a large amount of new muscle protein when compared with total muscle mass.

Muscle mass can range from 25-80 pounds depending on your gender, size, and body type. Certain EAA benefits, such as the anti-inflammatory effects, are immediately activated with a dosage of 3 grams, but it will take some patience before you see the benefits in terms of muscle size and strength—at least a month of regular consumption, preferably twice per day, to achieve noticeable gains in muscle mass and function.

The Maximum: A 15-Gram Dose of Amino Acids

The amount of muscle protein produced in response to EAA intake increases linearly up to a dose of 15 grams. Quite simply, a bigger dose will give you a bigger response, but more than 15 grams is unnecessary. Also, as long as you wait at least 1 hour after one dose before taking another dose, you will get the same response to each of the multiple doses in one day.

So, there is a big range of possible doses of EAAs. The appropriate dose depends on your desired results and how fast you want to achieve them.

If you are on the smaller side and are seeking to support muscle health, a basic dose of 3 grams is reasonable. For example, a petite woman of around 105 pounds with about 30 pounds of muscle will get a robust response and over time see positive effects with a 3-gram dose of EAAs.

A young healthy man who weighs 200 pounds and has a muscle mass of about 80 pounds would be better off with a 6-gram dose of EAAs. (A 3-gram dose would be just 0.008% of the muscle mass, so 6 grams would be more appropriate in order to account for the larger muscle mass.)

Two doses per day, between meals, is optimal, but you will still get beneficial effects if you only take one dose per day.

In addition to your protein needs based on your body fat and muscle percentages, your preferred activities and goals will influence both the amount of amino acids you need in a day as well as the optimal timing for ingesting those amino acids. If your primary goal is to facilitate weight loss, and particularly if you’re restricting calories to do so, you’ll want to take 15 grams of amino acids 5 times daily. But those focused on aging healthfully should take 3-6 grams of amino acids once or twice a day between meals.

The important point to keep in mind is that EAAs are required nutrients with many roles in the body beyond acting as components of muscle protein. A small dose of 3 grams can have beneficial effects in a number of respects in addition to building muscle, such as encouraging fat loss, so even a large muscular man will benefit from a small dose. The activities in which one participates, and the desired results from the EAA supplement, are probably more important than a person’s size or physical makeup.

how many grams of amino acids in a day

How to Take Essential Amino Acid Supplements

EAAs can be consumed either as powder dissolved in water, as capsules, as a beverage, or a combination of all three.

EAA supplements usually contain amino acids and some flavoring. It is common that about 20-25% of the weight of a supplement is flavoring. When determining the right EAA dose for you, be sure you are using the weight of the active component of the mixture (i.e, the EAAs) and are not including the weight of the flavoring. If you are using a supplement that has a mixture of free EAAs and protein, add the EAA component of the protein to the amount of free EAAs to determine the dose you are consuming. For example, if you are using a supplement containing 3 grams of free EAAs and 1.5 grams of whey protein you’re consuming approximately 4.5 grams of EAAs, since whey protein is roughly 50% EAAs.

If you are taking EAA supplements because your regular diet falls short in meeting the recommended intake of high-quality protein, then, in addition to the between-meal doses, I recommend taking supplements with your meals to enhance the physiological effectiveness of the consumption of the incomplete protein food sources in your diet. The dosage with meals to make up for dietary deficiencies depends on how far short your diet falls of the goal intake of high-quality protein. In the case of a vegan diet, this could be up to 15 grams of EAAs with each meal to obtain optimal results.

Optimal nutritional supplementation with EAAs will help maintain an adequate supply of amino acids in the blood throughout the day to support various physiological functions without the interruptions that normally occur when food is not being absorbed. Best results are therefore obtained by taking an EAA supplement twice per day, between meals or before going to bed.

If you are still unsure how many grams of amino acids you personally need in a day, don’t worry about it. The beauty of essential amino acids is that there are no known adverse responses to a balanced formulation of EAAs, so you don’t have to be concerned that you are taking too much. A very small dose has proven benefits for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, so you likewise don’t need to worry that you are taking too small of a dose to elicit beneficial results. The recommended dosages are meant as guidelines; if you find successful results with a different dose, stick with it.

The Effect of Protein and Amino Acids on Bone Health

Most everyone recognizes calcium, vitamin D, and other minerals as key nutrients for bone health. What many people don’t know is that a significant part of bone in living humans is comprised of protein. Dietary protein and amino acids are as important for bone building as they are for muscle building.

A large part of our lean body mass is the skeleton, which includes all the mineralized bones and the structural and mechanical support of cartilage and tendons.

Most everyone recognizes calcium, vitamin D, and other minerals as key nutrients for bone health. What many people don’t know is that a significant part of bone in living humans is comprised of protein (20-30%!). Therefore, it is logical that dietary protein and amino acids are as important for bone building as they are for muscle building.

Similarities Between Muscle and Bone

There are many similarities between muscle and bone in terms of the way they function and the purposes that they serve. Just as muscle is a reservoir for amino acids that circulate in the blood and replenish other body proteins and chemicals, bone is the storage form for calcium and phosphorous, two minerals that are vitally important for many of the chemical reactions that occur in the body.

As with amino acids, the blood level of these minerals is tightly controlled and there is a complex system involving hormones and other chemical messengers to regulate the release and uptake of calcium and phosphorus from bone. This continual “remodelling” is analogous to muscle protein turnover, although a bit slower. It takes approximately ten years for the entire bone mass to turn over.

Another similarity between muscle and bone is the “use it or lose it” paradigm. Just as muscle atrophies with lack of physical activity, bone also weakens and loses density without mechanical stress and weight-bearing activity.

What Are Bones Made Of?

Unlike the bleached white, hollow, rock-hard bone you see on the anatomy lab skeleton, living bone contains connective tissues (such as the endosteum or periosteum), a network of nerves and blood vessels, with the marrow at the center. If you think about what bones are put through in the course of daily activities (in particular, sports or vigorous physical labor) then it makes sense that bones need to be very strong and somewhat flexible.

Bone is made of crystals of mineral bound to protein, a composite which provides both strength and resilience. Collagen, assembled as a structure of long thin rods that contain three intertwined protein chains, makes up a good amount of bone protein. Calcium and phosphate combine (termed hydroxyapatite) and then bind in an orderly manner to the collagen matrix. Other proteins in bone provide additional strength and also play a role in binding minerals during bone formation.

Of the 30% of bone composed of organic compounds, 90-95% is collagen. Individual collagen molecules contain three polypeptides of about 1000 amino acids per chain with a high glycine and hydroxyproline content. The amino acids arginine and methionine are also important cartilage-forming substances.

As with muscle, having all the amino acids (essentials aminos, in particular) available in the correct balance is important for optimal bone development and maintenance. Amino acids also influence bone metabolism indirectly due to their role in the synthesis of growth hormones and growth factors that are involved in bone development and remodelling.  

The Importance of Amino Acids to Bone Health

Protein and amino acids are clearly important nutrients for bone health. Despite the solid evidence supporting this statement, there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding the relationship between dietary protein (animal proteins in particular) and bone health.

Early studies showed that higher intakes of dietary protein were associated with increases in urinary calcium excretion. It was further proposed that animal proteins, rich in sulfur-containing essential amino acids, could “acidify” the blood, thereby leaching calcium from the bone to neutralize the acid. While this theory is still widely disseminated, particularly by proponents of plant proteins, the science has long since explained and moved beyond the long-standing dogma that animal protein consumption results in a mild acidosis promoting the increased excretion of calcium. The original investigators set out to determine the source of the increased calcium and found that the higher protein intake actually increased absorption of calcium in the diet, and that the increased excretion of calcium in the urine merely reflected that increase in calcium uptake.   

This observation helped to explain why, in other studies looking at people’s level of protein intake and bone status, there always appeared to be a beneficial effect of higher protein intake on bone health. In fact, in a different study in which women were fed dietary protein at and below 0.8 g/kg (the RDA), the low protein intake was associated with a reduction in intestinal calcium absorption and a condition called hyperparathyroidism. Secondary hyperparathyroidism occurs when the calcium level is abnormally low, so the parathyroid gland secretes more hormone to try to increase calcium blood levels. The long-term consequences of these low-protein diet-induced changes in mineral metabolism are not known, but such a diet could be detrimental to skeletal health. Recent epidemiologic studies demonstrate reduced bone density and increased rates of bone loss in individuals habitually consuming low protein.

Optimizing the Musculoskeletal System

It is important to recognize that the bones, joints, and muscles are the key parts of an integrated musculoskeletal system. The relationship between muscle and bone is essential for modelling and remodelling, processes that increase bone strength and mass.

We know that weight-bearing exercises serve to increase not only muscle strength but also bone strength, and even obesity or a high body weight provides a direct mechanical force on bones.

Osteoporosis is usually a concern as individuals age and the maintenance of adequate bone strength and density with aging is highly dependent on the maintenance of adequate muscle mass and function. Interestingly, from a diet and exercise perspective, many of the same factors that build strong muscles; amino acids, dietary protein, insulin growth factor, and testosterone, also positively affect bone. Strategies to optimize muscle mass, strength, and function provide the same benefits to bone.

Bones thrive on nutrient-dense diets and healthy physical activity.  Here are some specific strategies to optimize bone health.

  1. Calcium is obviously vital for bone health but so are some other mineralsmagnesium and phosphorus in particular.  
  2. Vitamin D is essential for proper bone growth and remodeling. Other trace nutrients that play a role in bone metabolism include copper, boron, iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, and B vitamins.
  3. Dietary protein and essential amino acids are extremely important for bone health and density since they are part of the building material for living bones.
  4. Low-protein diets and insufficient essential amino acids can also indirectly weaken bones by altering hormones that are responsible for regulating the retention and loss of calcium from bones.
  5. Weight-bearing exercise (running, tennis, basketball, etc.) helps develop strong bones. The mechanical force stimulates bones to grow denser.
  6. Resistance exercise makes not just strong muscles but also strong bones. The torque placed on the bone from the muscle pulling on it stimulates the bone to grow bigger and denser.
  7. Family history is a factor in your risk for osteoporosis. While we can’t change our genetic makeup, we can double down on healthy lifestyle behaviors during “peak bone-building years” (teens and young adulthood) to optimize bone mass and lay in good reserves for later on in life.

Most everyone recognizes calcium, vitamin D, and other minerals as key nutrients for bone health. What many people don’t know is that a significant part of bone in living humans is comprised of protein. Dietary protein and amino acids are as important for bone building as they are for muscle building.

Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery After Exercise

Amino acids and muscle recovery go hand in hand. You need all 20 amino acids that make up the proteins in your body for optimal muscle recovery. Without amino acid support, your body eats away at its own muscle tissue for energy. We’ve got the scoop.

If you’re a fitness enthusiast, you probably tend to focus much more on the doing—sprinting, lifting, contracting—than on the process of recovery. However, if you don’t allow your muscles to recover, you can’t perform, compete, or train at your best. For just as our brains process information and create and consolidate memories as we sleep, so, too, do our muscles resynthesize, recalibrate, and grow when we rest. But did you know that you can also accelerate muscle growth during recovery by boosting muscle protein synthesis with amino acid nutrition? If you’re interested in increasing both muscle mass and exercise performance, come with us as we explore the fundamental relationship between amino acids and muscle recovery.

What Happens to Muscle During (and After) Exercise?

Every time you engage in exercise your muscles aren’t used to, some muscle damage occurs. And whether you’re an endurance athlete or into strength training, this unfamiliar stress leads to microscopic tears in the muscles. You’ve probably noticed the discomfort this causes a day or two after a high-intensity workout. Known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this post-exercise pain is the result of the tension muscles experience during eccentric (lengthening) exercises.

Believe it or not, these microscopic tears and the muscle protein breakdown they lead to have to happen if muscle strength and mass are to increase. When muscle fibers are damaged, satellite cells rush in to fuse the damaged fibers together, and this creates newer, stronger, and larger muscle fibers.

Think of satellite cells as stem cells for your muscles. Not only are these precursors to skeletal muscle cells made of protein—and therefore amino acids, the building blocks of protein—but they’re also essential for muscle repair after a workout. Moreover, they stimulate the production of more durable muscle, and this leads to better muscle function.

Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery

According to a 1995 study, muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle) is elevated by 50% 4 hours after high-intensity resistance training and by 109% 24 hours post workout. So for the next 24 to 48 hours after intensive exercise, your body needs plenty of protein-rich foods and the amino acids they contain to supply your muscles with the nutrients they need to grow in size and strength.

In other words, amino acids and muscle recovery go hand in hand. In fact, you need all 20 amino acids that make up the proteins in your body for optimal muscle recovery. Eleven of these amino acids are produced in the body, but nine are essential amino acids (EAAs), which means they must be consumed in the diet because they’re not produced in the body.

Increasing protein intake after a workout with the use of a balanced EAA supplement or even protein supplements, such as protein shakes or whey protein—which contain all the EAAs—is an effective way to activate muscle protein synthesis and aid in muscle recovery.

Increasing consumption of EAAs also stimulates reutilization of the 11 nonessential amino acids (NEAAs) for protein synthesis, thereby decreasing their oxidation and resultant increase in the byproducts ammonia and urea, which further aids muscle recovery.

What all this means is that providing your muscles with the amino acid nutritional intervention they require helps keep your muscles protected. The reason for this is that protein is used by the body for almost every biological process, and the majority of that protein is locked up in muscle tissue. So if the availability of amino acids to rebuild the protein lost during muscle breakdown is limited, not only does muscle protein synthesis suffer, but your body also has no choice but to use its own muscle to keep the rest of the machine running.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Muscle Recovery

Branched-chain amino acid supplementation has become popular among bodybuilders and other workout buffs to help increase athletic performance. On the face of it, this makes sense, as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, valine, and isoleucine—make up nearly 35% of muscle tissue and are a source of fuel for the muscles.

However, while this may accelerate recovery from muscle soreness, BCAAs are limited in their ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is because all the EAAs are required for a complete protein to be produced. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that taking BCAAs alone has either no effect or only a minor one on the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

Why is this?

Research has shown that the availability of all the EAAs determines the rate of muscle protein synthesis. So even if you’re consuming a BCAA supplement after your workout, the rate of muscle building is still going to be determined by how many of the other EAAs are present. This is because you can’t make a complete protein out of just three amino acids, so unless you’re also getting enough of the other six EAAs, the effectiveness of BCAAs will be limited.

In addition, an excess of BCAAs has been shown to disrupt levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. In fact, a 2013 study found that BCAA supplementation, when used in isolation, lowers levels of several important neurotransmitters, including catecholamines, which are necessary for enhanced athletic performance. So to get the most out of your exercise routine—and your muscles—you must consume BCAAs as part of a balanced mixture of all the EAAs.

However, even though consuming both protein and amino acid supplements after exercise can provide important benefits, it’s important to realize that they’re merely supplements to your regular diet. If you really want to give your muscles the nutritional support they need, focus on refueling your body after your workouts with foods that are abundant in amino acids.

Consuming between 0.5 and 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight should provide you with the right amount of amino acids to help increase your muscle mass and improve your athletic performance.

Foods high in amino acids

Amino Acids for Weight Loss: Boost Your Metabolism!

We all know the importance of diet and exercise for weight loss. There is, unfortunately, no magic weight-loss pill. There are, however, some pretty miraculous organic compounds that prime your body for weight loss and help boost your metabolism. We’ll give you one guess what they are!

We all know the importance of diet and exercise for weight loss—along with a sustained commitment to losing weight and keeping it off. And there is, unfortunately, no magic weight-loss pill that can help us shed the pounds and keep them off for good. But there are some pretty miraculous organic compounds that not only prime your body for weight loss but also help boost your metabolism. And these little building blocks of protein are completely safe and natural too. So come with us as we explore amino acids for weight loss and discover the many ways they can support your body’s metabolism and help you reach your weight management goals.

Amino Acids and Metabolism

Our bodies are constantly burning carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to provide the energy our cells need to perform the thousands of biochemical reactions that are continuously taking place throughout the day.

The sum total of the energy utilized by all these reactions is called the basal metabolic rate—the body’s rate of energy production when it’s at rest and not actively digesting food.

Because the basal metabolic rate is determined when the body’s at rest, the best time to measure the rate is when you’re sleeping (but since that’s not really practical for most of us, there are a number of online calculators available that can help you estimate your personal basal metabolic rate).

What’s more, the same basic metabolic functions that determine the basal rate of energy expenditure are also going on when the body’s active.

So, by adding the basal rate—which occurs continuously—to the amount of energy expended during daily activities, it’s possible to determine the body’s total metabolic expenditure (thankfully, there are online calculators that can help you measure this too).

Granted, this is all rather technical, but it helps us illustrate the fact that weight-loss promotions and articles that feature the appealing words “boost your metabolism” are really just saying, “Increase your basal metabolic rate.”

Here’s how it works: if your basal metabolic rate is greater than the number of calories you consume in a day, you’ll lose weight.

To express this in a slightly different way, if you can rev up your basal metabolic rate (i.e., boost your metabolism), you’ll lose body weight even if you maintain the same caloric intake—which is great news for those of us who don’t fancy eating a lower calorie diet.

There are two major contributors to the body’s basal metabolic rate:

  1. Reactions involved in maintaining a proper balance between sodium and potassium levels in the blood and inside the cells and reactions that use energy, such as those that make glucose
  2. The energy cost of protein turnover

Although it’s difficult to do much about the first, you can definitely increase the rate of protein turnover and thus boost your metabolism.

What Is Protein Turnover?

Protein turnover refers to the process by which the thousands of proteins in the human body are continuously created and broken down.

Energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, fuels protein turnover—both the process of tearing protein down and the process of building it back up. Anywhere from one third to one half of our basal energy production is used to fuel protein turnover.

But the exact amount of energy used for protein turnover depends on how much muscle you have (the amount of protein in the rest of the body is pretty constant between individuals) and how fast muscle protein is turning over.

So the most effective way to boost your metabolism—and therefore your fat-burning capability—is to increase your muscle mass.

A 10-kilogram difference in muscle mass, with all else staying constant, equates to about a 35,000-kilocalorie difference in energy expenditure over a year.

And since about 3,500 kilocalories is stored in 1 pound of body fat, a 35,000-kilocalorie difference in energy expenditure translates to a gain or loss of 10 pounds of body fat over the course of a year.

What’s the Best Way to Build Muscle Fast and Increase Muscle Protein Turnover?

If you want to increase muscle protein turnover and build lean muscle fast, then incorporating exercise and protein/essential amino acids (EAAs) into your routine is absolutely essential.

Exercise increases muscle protein turnover for many hours after a workout and can, over a period of time, help contribute to both muscle growth and muscle mass. However, don’t expect major changes in muscle mass from exercise alone because you must increase the amount of protein and EAAs you consume to significantly affect mass.

So increasing dietary protein/EAA intake—whether through food sources, protein supplements like whey protein, or supplemental amino acids—is the key to boosting basal metabolic rate. Doing so will stimulate muscle protein turnover and increase muscle mass over the long term.

Dietary protein—and EAAs in particular—stimulates muscle protein turnover in two respects.

First, amino acid supplements have been shown to increase the basal rate of muscle protein turnover—which means that more energy is used to fuel the increase in protein turnover, thereby giving a persistent “boost” to your metabolism.

And this can have a positive impact on both weight loss and body composition. Check out the results in the figure below.

Basal muscle synthesis

Second, increased dietary protein and EAA intake helps boost metabolism and promote fat loss by influencing what’s known as diet-induced thermogenesis.

The body’s metabolic rate goes up about 10% for a couple of hours after eating a meal that contains dietary protein or consuming an EAA supplement. The exact amount of the increase depends on how much protein you eat with the meal or how many grams of EAAs you take. This response has been studied for many years and is called diet-induced thermogenesis.

Diet-induced thermogenesis refers to energy lost as heat after you eat protein. This process is only activated by dietary protein or EAAs, as neither dietary carbohydrates nor fats have much effect on metabolic rate.

However, when you consume dietary protein or an EAA supplement, your metabolic rate increases because energy is used to digest the protein and absorb the amino acids.

Therefore, eating a meal that contains dietary protein or taking an EAA supplement increases the metabolic rate by stimulating the rate of protein synthesis in the body, particularly in muscle, since the process of protein synthesis requires energy.

In addition, diet-induced thermogenesis of dietary protein actually lessens the caloric impact of protein.

Calories are classically determined by combusting a food source in a device that measures the amount of energy released. In the case of protein, 4 kilocalories per gram is normally released by combustion, so the caloric equivalency of protein is traditionally considered 4 kilocalories per gram.

This means that you can calculate how many protein calories are in a meal by multiplying the number of grams of protein by 4 kilocalories per gram.

However, since the digestion of protein increases the body’s metabolic rate by approximately 10%, the net caloric intake from the protein component of the meal is actually 10% less—or 3.6 kilocalories per gram—than the value you’d get by following the traditional approach.

So why not just stimulate diet-induced thermogenesis with dietary protein?

Because consuming EAAs increases protein turnover more than any dietary protein can, so EAAs therefore have a greater impact on diet-induced thermogenesis. Take a look at the following figure.

energy expenditure

It requires less work for EAAs to be absorbed by the intestines, so on a gram-per-gram basis, it may take less energy for the body to digest them than it does intact protein.

Even so, the consumption of EAAs actually stimulates protein synthesis about three times more than the consumption of intact protein does—thus leading to a greater increase in diet-induced thermogenesis.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Weight Loss

The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are a special group of EAAs that are known to have a direct impact on metabolic health.

Interestingly, although science has known for decades that blood concentrations of BCAAs are elevated in individuals with type 2 diabetes, the link between levels of BCAAs and the development of insulin resistance is not what it may initially seem.

In fact, the theory that dietary BCAAs are somehow to blame for the impaired glucose metabolism that leads to diabetes is contradicted by numerous studies over the past 20 years that have shown that supplementing with BCAAs can improve insulin sensitivity, and that increased concentrations of leucine, in particular, may actually improve blood sugar control.

Because people with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome—a related group of conditions that includes obesity, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure and cholesterol levels—have greater difficulty losing weight, you might then assume that increased consumption of supplemental BCAAs could be helpful with weight loss.

And while the connection between BCAAs and weight loss has not been studied as thoroughly as the connection between BCAAs and insulin resistance, the research that has been performed on humans would indicate that your assumption is indeed correct.

For example, no human studies have thus far demonstrated any gains in body fat with consumption of BCAAs. In fact, just the opposite has been shown, with current research indicating that a calorie-restricted diet that’s high in BCAAs may actually lead to both greater fat loss and improved muscle retention.

Why Use Amino Acids for Weight Loss Instead of Drugs?

Although a number of both over-the-counter and prescription-based medications are currently being marketed as weight-loss aids, these types of drug-based approaches come with potential negative side effects, some of which may be severe.

By contrast, the stimulation of protein synthesis that occurs after ingesting EAAs is an entirely natural biological process without any known adverse effects. Moreover, long-term consumption of EAAs has been proven to result in a number of health benefits—advantages that aren’t seen with drug therapy.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that protein synthesis can’t occur unless all EAAs are present in their optimal amounts. So to ensure you’re getting the most out of amino acids for weight loss, always look for a formula that includes a balanced supply of all nine EAAs.

4 Benefits of Amino Acids for Weight Loss

Are You Getting Enough Sulfur?

Sulfur is the 3rd most copious mineral in the body, hanging out mostly in our bones, skin, and muscles. According to a recent review, a significant proportion of the population isn’t getting enough sulfur, especially seniors. In this article we’re helping you up your sulfur intake.

After calcium and phosphorus, sulfur is the third most abundant mineral element in the body, with large amounts (almost half) located in the bones, skin, and muscles. Sulfur is an integral component of a wide variety of processes, from protein synthesis to cartilage maintenance to detoxification. And a deficiency in the mineral has even been linked to heart disease and diabetes. So if you’ve never given much thought to this important substance, maybe it’s time you started asking yourself if you’re getting enough sulfur.

Where Do We Get Sulfur?

The majority of the sulfur in our bodies comes from dietary protein, yet only 2 of the 20 amino acids normally present in protein actually contain sulfur. One of these sulfur-containing amino acids—or sulfur amino acids, as they’re also known—is methionine, which can’t be synthesized in the body and has to be supplied through the diet. And while the other amino acid, cysteine, can be synthesized in the body, the process requires a steady supply of sulfur.

The rest of the sulfur our bodies use comes from inorganic sulfates, such as iron sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine sulfate, and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), and the organic sulfur found in foods like broccoli, garlic, and kale. In addition, it’s estimated that we obtain approximately 10% of the sulfur in our diets from our drinking water.

Sulfur’s Role in the Body

Sulfur plays an important role in the human body and is required for literally hundreds of physiologic processes. For example, sulfur helps give shape to proteins and thus determine their function—as in the case of the keratin that makes up hair, skin, and nails. Likewise, it’s also critical for the integrity of cartilage and other connective tissues.

Sulfur is required for the formation and proper functioning of enzymes—the catalysts for nearly all chemical reactions within cells. Without sulfur, various functions, including digestion and metabolic processes, would be compromised.

Sulfur is necessary for the conversion of thiamine and biotin and the synthesis of glutathione, which is considered the body’s master antioxidant, as it regenerates other antioxidants. In addition, glutathione is important for boosting the immune system and preventing the damage caused by reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals.

What’s more, sulfur is a vital component of proper insulin function and glucose metabolism and plays a role in preventing diabetes.

Causes of Sulfur Deficiency

According to a review published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism, a significant number of Americans suffer from a deficiency of sulfur. Although this study focused mainly on older adults, who often eat less and consume fewer sources of protein, sulfur deficiency is thought to be widespread.

This is because modern farming practices have resulted in the depletion of sulfur in the soil, which has, in turn, led to reduced sulfur content in many of the foods we eat.

The combination of sulfur depletion in the soil, decreased consumption of protein, reliance on processed foods, and the destruction of sulfur compounds through the cooking process can result in the perfect recipe for a sulfur deficiency. In addition, our bodies can store only limited amounts of sulfur, and we need to replenish our stores daily.

Taken together, the possibility of a sulfur deficiency is real for many of us. And such a deficiency may:

Getting Enough Sulfur Through Diet and Supplementation

While the probability is great that many—if not most—of us lack sufficient levels of sulfur, it’s possible to increase our intake through both our diets and the use of dietary supplements.

Diet

One of the best ways to make sure you’re getting enough sulfur is to ensure you’re eating a wide variety of sulfur-rich foods. Good sources of dietary sulfur include:

Meat Seafood
Eggs  Sweet potatoes
Poultry Dairy products
Asparagus Broccoli
Cauliflower Cabbage
Coconut Bananas
Watermelon Nuts
Tomatoes Wheat germ
Avocados Bok choy
Brussels sprouts Onions
Kale Garlic

Supplementation

Due to the depletion of sulfur in our soils, dietary sources of sulfur may still be inadequate to meet the body’s needs. Fortunately, sulfur can be obtained through supplementation as well.

Perhaps the most popular form of supplemental sulfur is methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM. Touted for its ability to reduce symptoms of chronic inflammation and aid in pain relief, MSM has been shown in studies to be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis.

In one study, MSM was demonstrated to improve pain and physical function in people with arthritis. And in another study, a combination of MSM and glucosamine sulfate was shown to significantly improve signs and symptoms of arthritis.

As discussed earlier, one of the principal sources of sulfur is the essential amino acid methionine, which must be obtained from the diet. In addition to increasing sulfur intake, this amino acid also promotes the formation of collagen and cartilage and has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and analgesic properties.

Methionine is also essential for the absorption and bioavailability of selenium and zinc. Moreover, it aids in the detoxification and removal of heavy metals such as lead and mercury and helps the liver metabolize fats.

Another excellent source of sulfur is N-acetylcysteine (NAC)—a modified form of cysteine. Like cysteine, NAC aids glutathione synthesis. It may also be helpful in treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory disorders due to its ability to thin bronchial mucus.

In addition, NAC has shown benefit in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behaviors, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Interestingly, you can also boost your body’s sulfur levels by taking an Epsom salt bath 2 to 3 times a week. As mentioned earlier, Epsom salts are composed of magnesium sulfate—an inorganic form of sulfur—and soaking in a bath of these salts is an effective way of absorbing sulfur.

Another way to ensure you’re getting sufficient sulfur is by making certain you’re spending some quality time in the sun. Believe it or not, when your skin is exposed to the sun—without sunscreen—sulfur is produced in the form of vitamin D and cholesterol sulfate.

Sulfur is one of the most important substances in the body, yet it receives very little attention, and depleted soils, processed foods, and cooking help ensure that most people are probably deficient in this vital mineral.

So if you’re concerned about a lack of sulfur in your own diet, make sure you’re eating plenty of sulfur-containing foods, and consider supplementation when necessary.

Can Amino Acids Cause Weight Gain?

Is it possible that amino acids cause weight gain? Let’s explore this question and see if we can find the answers you seek.

When you ingest amino acids—the building blocks of protein—your body uses them to make both enzymes and proteins as demands require. Any leftover amino acids then follow various metabolic pathways. Some are converted into glucose and used as energy. Others become glycogen and are stored in the liver and muscle tissue for future energy use. And still others are turned into fat and stored in fat cells. But is it possible that amino acids cause weight gain? Let’s explore this question and see if we can find the answers you seek.

Amino Acids Are Low in Calories

Amino acids contribute 4 calories for every gram of protein you consume. Which means if you take 4 grams of an amino acid supplement, you’re consuming only 16 calories. Moreover, beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements have been demonstrated with doses less than 4 grams. So if you’re worried about the number of calories in your diet, you can choose to supplement with a simple 4-gram, 16-calorie dose.

You also get amino acids from the dietary protein you eat. However, the calorie load from dietary protein intake is significantly higher. For example, let’s say you choose to get your 4 grams of essential amino acids from a high-quality whole food source such as pasture-raised meat. In this case, you’ll be getting an extra 100 calories a day compared with the 16 calories you would be getting from the amino acid supplement.

However, when it comes to weight gain, it’s important to monitor the number of calories you’re ingesting and compare that to what your body needs. To determine how many calories you should eat each day based on your sex, height, and activity level, you can use this online calculator, which is based on the Mifflin-St Jeor equation for estimating calorie requirements.

Amino Acids for Fat Loss

Far from causing weight gain, amino acids can actually help boost the production of hormones that burn fat and promote weight loss. One such hormone is the growth hormone somatotropin (STH). STH activates protein synthesis—and therefore muscle building—as well as fat burning.

Studies show that obese and overweight individuals tend to have low concentrations of STH. However, certain amino acids have been shown to increase levels of STH, most notably arginine, methionine, and glutamine.

Moreover, a 2011 study published in The Journal of Nutrition that focused on middle-aged adults from East Asian and Western countries showed that individuals with a higher intake of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have a lower prevalence of obesity and are not as overweight.

Researchers attributed this effect to the BCAA leucine—which can increase energy expenditure and thereby decrease both body weight and body fat—as well as the ability of BCAAs to lessen the effects of insulin resistance and improve glucose tolerance (the measure of how well your body processes blood sugar).

So Do Amino Acids Cause Weight Gain?

After examining the evidence, my answer to this question would have to be no. I don’t think amino acids will cause you to gain weight unless you eat too much protein—such as excessive amounts of animal protein or whey protein powders, protein shakes, or other types of protein supplements, which can be high in calories—and don’t burn off the excess amino acids.

However, I do think amino acids will help you maintain and even build muscle tissue. And this may cause moderate weight gain because muscle weighs more than fat. But that would still leave you with a better body composition, improved body mass index (BMI), and leaner, more toned figure. And who’s going to argue with that?

I don’t think amino acids cause weight gain, unless you are eating an ultra-high-protein diet and not burning off the excess amino acids. I do think amino acids are helping you maintain and build muscles, which may cause moderate weight gain, but a better body mass index (BMI) and leaner, more toned figure.

Dietary Protein or Amino Acid Supplements: Which Is Better?

Which is better—dietary protein or amino acid supplements? There are a number of factors to consider when answering this question. And we’ve got them all here.

Amino acids are the building blocks of life, and dietary proteins are the body’s source of new amino acids. Therefore, the nutritional effect seen with dietary protein intake is in fact a result of the absorption of amino acids. But unlike protein sources, which must be broken down into their various individual amino acids before they can be used by the body, amino acid supplements don’t have to go through the process of protein metabolism and thus come ready for complete absorption. In light of this fact, you might be left wondering which is really better—dietary protein or amino acid supplements.

There are a number of factors to consider when answering this question. So, in this article, we’re going to delve into these issues, weigh the pros and cons of each, and discuss what you need to know to choose the best approach.

Dietary Proteins—the “Natural” Way to Obtain Amino Acids

The quality of a dietary protein, as scored by the Digestible Indispensable Amino Score (DIAAS), a scoring system devised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is determined by the extent to which its constituent amino acids are digested and absorbed as well as the profile of the amino acids—the amount of each amino acid relative to the others—in relation to the body’s requirements.

This includes the levels of essential amino acids as compared to the levels of nonessential amino acids. Even though the human body uses 20 different amino acids to create all the proteins it uses to function, it can, under normal circumstances, manufacture the 11 nonessential amino acids on its own. However, the nine essential amino acids must be obtained from food.

Now, there’s a school of thought in the nutrition community that says natural food sources are always better than supplements. However, the scientific basis for this perception is unclear. For example, individuals who have had large portions of their intestines removed surgically can live for many years entirely on artificial nutrition given intravenously.

The waters become particularly muddied in the case of dietary protein vs. amino acid supplements.

Amino acids in general are not only natural components of the diet (albeit packaged in the form of protein), but essential amino acids specifically are also the only macronutrients required for survival. What’s more, the nutritional purpose of dietary protein is to deliver amino acids to the body.

This being so, can we truly say that dietary protein is more “natural” than supplementary amino acids?

A further complication in distinguishing between the advantages of dietary protein and those of amino acid supplements arises when considering specific protein dietary supplements, such as whey protein powder.

Should we consider whey protein a natural protein food source?

While whey protein occurs in its unaltered form in the plastic tub of powder you buy at your local health food store, it’s still a byproduct of cheese-making—which means that milk is its original food source.

So, clearly, when it comes to distinguishing between “natural” protein food sources and amino acid supplements, there’s a lot of room for interpretation.

But rather than worry if a nutritional supplement is natural, it’s actually more important to consider whether there’s a quantifiable difference between the nutritional benefits seen with the protein that occurs as part of a normal diet and those found when using amino acid supplements.

Why Use Amino Acid or Protein Supplements?

Protein is a fundamental part of our diet—almost every biological process in the body depends on it—and optimal amino acid and protein nutrition starts with the protein component of our meals.

However, the amount of protein in an individual’s regular diet often isn’t enough to provide sufficient levels of the amino acids the body needs to thrive. There can be many reasons for this, from eating habits to lifestyle choices to health problems.

For example, college students living away from home for the first time may indulge in far more carbohydrates and junk food than high-quality protein sources. Similarly, older adults may lack sufficient protein due to loss of appetite, dental problems, or financial difficulties. And without careful food choices, people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are particularly at risk of protein deficiency.

In addition, there are circumstances that can increase an individual’s dietary protein needs. Participation in heavy exercise, whether aerobic or resistance training, is one example.

A 2018 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (Eur J Appl Physiol) found that protein supplementation after prolonged aerobic exercise enhanced the anabolic response required for the process of muscle-building (muscle protein synthesis). And a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr) demonstrated that 20 grams of high-quality protein was needed to achieve maximum muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise.

These studies are just two among the many that have documented the positive effect of protein and amino acid supplementation on muscle mass and strength as well as physical performance.

The natural aging process illustrates another situation in which protein requirements increase. This is because the body’s muscle protein synthetic response decreases with age, leaving older adults more at risk of sarcopenia. A 2019 study published in the journal Sports Medicine (Sports Med) found that this anabolic resistance is even more pronounced in older women.

Moreover, conditions such as serious illness, injury, and surgery can all increase the body’s need for a high-protein diet.

However, any mismatch that exists between optimal protein requirements—as opposed to the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, which is a guideline based on a variety of factors, including sex, age, and activity level—and the amount actually eaten can be addressed by taking a protein or amino acid supplement.

Protein supplements may come as relatively pure preparations (whey protein isolate is a good example). Alternatively, protein may be a component of a more complete food product that also contains carbohydrates and fat. Examples of these types of protein supplements are protein bars and meal replacement beverages.

Amino acid supplements may also come as part of a more complete nutritional supplement that includes fat and carbohydrates, but you’ll usually find amino acids supplied in a more pure form, such as a beverage, capsule, or powdered blend.

Benefits of Protein and Amino Acid Supplements

As mentioned, protein is required for almost every biological process, and the amino acids absorbed from a protein supplement thus perform a wide range of functions, including production of both brain neurotransmitters and the chemicals required for the regulation of immune function and blood flow.

However, the predominant role played by amino acids is in stimulating the production of new body proteins—via the aforementioned anabolic response that results in a net gain in protein balance—particularly those that make up skeletal muscle. The value of protein supplements has therefore traditionally been evaluated in terms of their ability to perform this action.

The extent to which a protein supplement can stimulate the production of new muscle protein, and thus increase muscle mass, is highly dependent on the specific protein and how much of it is consumed.

For example, high-quality proteins like whey protein contain close to 50% essential amino acids, while collagen protein contains only about 10%. This is important because essential amino acids are the active components of dietary proteins—the nonessential amino acids present in protein actually have no impact on the production of new muscle protein.

Consequently, the positive effects of protein intake on muscle protein synthesis are dependent on the amount of essential amino acids contained in each particular protein. Further, all nine essential amino acids are required for sustained stimulation of muscle protein production. Therefore, incomplete proteins—proteins that lack sufficient levels or include only some of the essential amino acids—are not effective on their own.

What Protein Supplement Is Most Effective?

In terms of stimulating the production of new muscle protein, whey protein has been shown to be the most effective protein supplement. In general, incomplete plant-based proteins like pea protein are ineffective. Soy protein is the exception because it’s one of the only plant-based proteins that’s classified as a high-quality protein—though whey protein is still more effective.

As alluded to earlier, the body’s response to whey protein is somewhat dose-dependent, but progressively larger doses get less and less effective. And once the level reaches 30 grams, little added benefit is seen compared with lesser amounts.

In addition, the more pure form, whey protein isolate, is more effective than the whey protein contained in a meal replacement. In fact, meal replacement protein supplements have often been shown to have little to no beneficial effect.

The problem may lie in the addition of non-protein calories in the form of carbohydrates and fat, but it’s more likely that low-quality proteins have been included with the whey protein used in the formulation. However, this is difficult to determine because product labels may be required to list total protein content per serving, but they’re not required to list how much of each protein included in the mixture is contained in each serving.

Moreover, it’s quite common to include the low-quality protein collagen because it doesn’t cost much and is easily mixed into any formulation.

So if you’re interested in using a protein supplement, and muscle protein synthesis is your goal, it’s best to look for a product that’s composed of only whey protein. But if you choose one that contains a combination of proteins, be sure they’re all high-quality proteins.

Benefits of Amino Acid Supplements

Amino acid supplements have many benefits. To begin with, the profile of amino acids in dietary supplements is completely controlled, so only active amino acids are included. Moreover, amino acid supplements are fully and rapidly absorbed.

Peak concentrations of essential amino acids also reach a high level more quickly than when a similar amount of protein is consumed. As a result, a blend of essential amino acids may stimulate muscle protein synthesis 3 times as much—or more—as a similar amount of whey protein. Which means that a very small amount of essential amino acids (fewer than 4 grams) is enough to effectively stimulate muscle building.

While amino acid supplements, particularly those made with all nine essential amino acids, have many advantages over protein supplements, there are a few disadvantages to supplements that don’t include a dietary protein component such as whey.

For example, even though peak concentrations of amino acids are reached much faster than those seen with whey protein, concentrations also fall off much faster. Thus, the response to an amino acid supplement is not as sustained as the response that might occur with whey protein.

So Which Is It—Dietary Protein or Amino Acid Supplements?

It’s clear from the above discussion that essential amino acid and protein supplements, particularly whey protein isolate, both have benefits. But one is not necessarily better than the other, especially when they can be combined for maximum benefit.

The rapid, intense response to essential amino acids can be merged with whey protein to achieve a more sustained response in a flavorful product.

Moreover, there are some circumstances, such as before physical activity, in which the rapid absorption of amino acids makes them the preferable choice—especially if your goal is to increase exercise performance and improve muscle growth, body weight, and body composition.

However, in other cases, such as after intensive physical activity, a combination of essential amino acids and whey protein is the better choice for capitalizing on the benefits of each.

In summary, both amino acids and high-quality proteins like whey protein can be useful as dietary supplements. And while a mixture of essential amino acids has many important advantages, the rather short period of stimulation is a limitation in some circumstances that can be mitigated by ingesting whey protein at the same time.

8 Top Dietary Protein Sources

Do You Need to Take Amino Acid Supplements?

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

While the main responsibility of dietary amino acids is to serve as building blocks of protein, there has been growing interest in identifying functional benefits of individual amino acids that go beyond this role. Although more than 300 amino acids are listed in the Practical Handbook of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, only 20 different amino acids are incorporated into body proteins. Of these 20 amino acids, 9 are considered essential amino acids (EAAs) because they are not synthesized in the body and must be obtained through diet or supplementation. It is these amino acids we are concerned with when we talk about amino acid supplements.

Amino Acids Drive Protein Turnover

Proteins in the body are in a constant state of breakdown and resynthesis (turnover). Some of the amino acids released as a consequence of protein breakdown are irreversibly oxidized (damaged as a result of being chemically combined with oxygen) and thus not available for reincorporation into newly synthesized proteins.

Dietary amino acids are therefore necessary as precursors for the production of new proteins to ensure that the rate of protein synthesis is balanced against the rate of protein breakdown. Because of this finely tuned process, we’re able to maintain a constant level of protein within the body.

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

So, the question isn’t if you need dietary amino acids—because we can’t live without them. Rather, the question is if we need to supplement our normal dietary intake of protein sources with an amino acid supplement.

Why Essential Amino Acid Supplements Are a Must-Have

Essential amino acids (EAAs) are the only macronutrients required for long-term survival. Surprisingly, we can live almost an entire lifetime without eating any carbohydrates and go 6 months or more without ingesting any fats. Proteins, however, can’t be stored in the body, and EAAs are the “active” components in dietary protein that help activate protein synthesis.

A healthy diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of EAAs to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplementation can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein sources.

Essential amino acid supplements can play a crucial role in optimal amino acid and protein nutrition, as they stimulate muscle tissue protein synthesis to a greater extent than any protein in its whole form, from animal protein to soy protein and protein shakes.

In addition, gram for gram, EAAs are at least 3 times as effective as whey protein powder in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. This is due in part to the body’s rapid and complete absorption of free-form EAAs; peak concentrations are much higher and achieved more rapidly than those seen with intact protein.

Further, the relative amounts of each EAA in a dietary supplement can be formulated to optimally stimulate muscle tissue protein synthesis in specific circumstances, such as during exercise or recovery from surgery. The ability of these specially formulated amino acid mixtures to repair muscle damage and accelerate muscle growth in these situations can be indispensable.

For instance, a special group of EAAs known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, has been found to aid in muscle building efforts by increasing the amount of time you’re able to exercise and decreasing post-workout muscle soreness.

Every time you exercise, your muscles rely on glycogen to help fuel their efforts. Glycogen is a type of complex carbohydrate made up of glucose molecules. As your muscles burn through their stores of glycogen, more and more lactic acid is created as a byproduct, and this can cause muscle soreness.

Essential amino acids are the only macronutrients required for survival. A normal diet containing high-quality proteins should deliver adequate amounts of essential amino acids to meet minimal requirements. However, amino acid supplements can provide benefits not achievable with even high-quality protein food sources.

This is where EAA supplements formulated with optimal levels of BCAAs can make a substantial difference, particularly for those engaged in high-intensity and endurance exercise. Taken especially pre-workout, this group of three amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—has the ability to raise your body’s lactate threshold, or the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate faster than it can be removed.

In addition, BCAAs can also help with issues related to glycogen depletion—which results in extreme fatigue and an almost complete loss of energy—by helping to preserve skeletal muscle glycogen stores.

And for those interested in weight loss or experiencing issues with blood sugar control or insulin resistance, take heart. The beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements can be achieved with minimal caloric intake, which means you can stay on track with your healthy weight goals.

The beneficial effects of essential amino acid supplements have been demonstrated with doses less than 4 grams, which is equivalent to only 16 calories. By contrast, even high-quality dietary protein sources contain 50% or more non-protein calories in the form of carbohydrates and/or fats.

Food sources of protein are also made up of more than half nonessential amino acids, which have little value in terms of stimulating protein synthesis. In fact, consuming approximately 4 grams of EAAs in the form of whole protein sources requires 100 kilocalories, or about 5 times the calories found in an amino acid supplement.

The Best Amino Acid Supplement

Clinical trials have shown the benefits of EAAs in many areas, from increasing muscle strength and muscle mass to controlling plasma lipids, reducing liver fat (thereby improving liver function and helping to prevent fatty liver disease), and accelerating recovery from serious injury or surgery. But the composition of an essential amino acid supplement is vital, not only for stimulating protein synthesis but also for maintaining an ideal balance of all EAAs in the blood.

Just as practitioners of holistic health follow the principle of whole-body balance, so, too, should users of amino acid supplements. For it’s crucial that all EAAs be provided in a dietary supplement. Consumption of formulations containing only some EAAs, including BCAA supplements, has a minimal effect on protein synthesis because this process requires adequate availability of all the EAAs.

Finally, the many other functions of amino acids, including neurotransmitter production, blood flow regulation, immune system maintenance, and lipid profile optimization, are contingent on proportionate blood levels of amino acids. For this reason, a formulation containing all the EAAs in perfect balance is the optimal amino acid supplement.