Essential Amino Acids

amino acid molecule

Essential Amino Acids

Components of Protein

Proteins are organic compounds made up of building blocks called “amino acids.” ("Amino" means that they contain nitrogen.) There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of them are considered “essential” because the body cannot make them, and therefore, they must be supplied by the food we eat.

This information is important to you because,if your diet does not contain enough of these particular amino acids, you may suffer the effects of protein deficiency.

Here is a list of the nine essential amino acids. These are the ones that your body cannot make on its own.

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

The following are amino acids that your body can produce from nitrogen, carbohydrates and fat.

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

Protein that comes from animal foods generally will contain all of the amino acids necessary to make a complete protein.

However, protein supplied by plant foods usually does not contain all of the essential amino acids and is often called "incomplete protein."

Those who consume a vegetarian diet, can still get complete proteins by combining two or more types of plant-based or non-meat protein to make a complete protein.

Here is a list of complementary proteins, i.e. proteins that when eaten together become complete.

Legumes... with Nuts
Legumes... with Grains
Legumes... with Seeds
Legumes... with Dairy

Grains... with Dairy
Nuts/Seeds... with Dairy
Nuts/Seeds... with Legumes
Dairy... with Nuts/Seeds and Legumes


It is generally believed by nutritionists that it is not necessary to eat these complementary proteins at the same meal.


What protein does for you

1. Building material for body tissues such as skin, bones, tendons, muscles, hair, nails and organs

2. Maintain proper fluid balance in and out of the cells

3. Promote proper pH of the body by buffering fluids

4. Major component of hormones, enzymes and antibodies

5. Needed for blood clotting

6. Acts as transporters carrying nutrients to all parts of the body

7. Provide energy and glucose for the brain when carbohydrate is unavailable for that purpose


Lack of protein

Severe protein deficiency is most often associated with starvation and malnutrition and is a major cause for concern in developing countries, especially among children. Thousands of children die every day from malnutrition, which includes inadequate protein intake.

However, deficiency can also occur even in developed countries, where it is usually associated with those in extreme poverty, the elderly, or those suffering with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. It can also affect those addicted to drugs or alcohol who may use their resources on the addictions instead of food or suffer from poor appetite.


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