Whether we are athletes or more sedentary folks, we all need protein. The importance of high-quality protein in the human diet cannot be overstated. Every cell in your body contains protein, which is made up of a chain of amino acids. When the protein you ingest is digested, it breaks down into the aminos that your body needs to function properly.
Types of amino acids
There are nine essential amino acids you need that cannot be created in your body and must be obtained from food: valine, histidine, tryptophan, isoleucine, threonine, leucine, phenylalanine, lysine and methionine.
Amino acids your body can create are called nonessential aminos: asparagine, glutamic acid, alanine, and aspartic acid. There are also conditional aminos that we only need in times of stress or illness, and they include serine, cysteine, proline, glutamine, ornithine, tyrosine, arginine and glycine.
Food sources for essential amino acids
Contrary to what was previously believed, we now know there is a little protein in all foods. This is good news for vegans, vegetarians, persons with cholesterol issues, and athletes who prefer to limit their meat intake. Non-animal-based foods can supply our daily need for essential amino acids that are the body’s building blocks without the problems often associated with meat-based diets.
Here are non-animal food sources for the nine essential amino acids that need to be included in your daily diet:
- Lysine is needed for the production of carnitine, which is necessary for the body to be able to convert fatty acids into fuel that lowers cholesterol, calcium absorption, and collagen production.
The best source is beans. Other sources include chia seeds, cashews, almonds, soy protein, watercress, hemp seeds, parsley, avocados, chickpeas, and lentils.
- Leucine helps with blood sugar regulation, muscle strength, and mood regulation.
There are many plant-based sources for leucine including kidney beans, chia, sunflower and sesame seeds, peas, soy, avocados, whole grain rice, figs, raisins, dates, olives, blueberries, apples, bananas, seaweed, and watercress.
- Isoleucine helps with energy and hemoglobin production.
Sources include beans, cashews, almonds, soy, rye, brown rice, oats, hemp, sesame, pumpkin, chia and sunflower seeds, spinach, cranberries, quinoa, kiwis, apples, and blueberries.
- Valine is involved in muscle tone, repair and growth, and endurance.
You can get valine from beans, avocados, apples, cranberries, blueberries, sesame, chia, and hemp seeds, soy, legumes, broccoli, apples, peanuts, apricots and oranges.
- Methionine is the only amino that contains sulfur, which is needed for the production of bone cartilage. It also functions to form creatine, a necessary ingredient for cellular energy.
Sources for methionine are beans, onions, raisins, sunflower, chia and hemp seeds, wheat, whole-grain rice, Brazil nuts, oats, figs, legumes and seaweed.
- Threonine is of paramount importance to your immune system, liver, heart, and central nervous system. It produces glycine and serine and assists the liver in digestion.
The two best sources for threonine are watercress and spirulina, while the following foods also supply it: hemp, chia, sunflower, and sesame seeds, avocados, quinoa, wheat, figs, raisins, soybeans, leafy greens and pumpkin.
- Histidine assists with the brain’s neurotransmitters, cellular muscle health, detoxification, and the production of red and white blood cells.
Food sources include beans, corn, cauliflower, rice, hemp and chia seeds, seaweed, potatoes, legumes, cantaloupe and buckwheat.
- Tryptophan is vital for sleep, nervous system health, neurotransmitter function, and muscle repair. It converts to serotonin in the brain, which aids mood balancing.
You can obtain tryptophan from animal sources, but these have been shown to promote inflammation. Non-animal sources include beans, sweet potatoes, oats, oat bran, quinoa, avocados, leafy greens, peas, lentils, asparagus, lettuce, beets, mushrooms, chickpeas, peas, celery, carrots, bananas, apples and oranges.
- Phenylalanine is an important amino to get from foods rather than from supplements. Phenylalanine translates into tyrosine in the body, which is necessary for the formation of proteins, brain chemicals, and thyroid hormones.
Good sources are beans, seeds, avocado, seaweed, peanuts, almonds, rice, quinoa, leafy greens, berries and olives.
The importance of a good, balanced diet for optimal health cannot be overstated. Although supplementation is sometimes necessary, nutrients which are obtained from food are easier for your body to use than supplements.