Just talking about protein itself is about as specific as saying carbohydrate. There are so many different ways to consume the nutrient and it goes without saying that not all ways are created equal! But, what really makes good protein so valuable is its amino acids. To better understand amino acids and the difference between regular protein and great protein, let's look at how these nutrients function.
What is an Amino Acid?
You may have heard of amino acids referred to as the “building blocks of protein.” Although they certainly do create protein structures when bonded together, amino acids are important in their own right, too. There are more than 50 kinds of amino acids, but only 20 are used to make the proteins in your body. Of these 20, nine are considered “essential,” meaning your body cannot produce them and you must consume them through your diet.
The essential amino acids are:
The remaining 11 amino acids are considered either nonessential or conditional – but make no mistake, despite their category, all 20 are vitally important to your body.
The Role of Amino Acids in Protein
Proteins are amino acids, or more specifically, they're made from a long chain of hundreds or even thousands of amino acids twisted and bridged together. Enzymes in your body break down these proteins back into amino acid form, which are then used by your body in an overwhelming number of functions: from hormone regulation and communication to providing the structure and support for your cells. Even the most prominent neurotransmitter in your brain is, in fact, an amino acid (glutamine, in the conditional category of amino acids). It goes without saying that proteins are far more important than helping you build a little extra muscle at the gym (although, they can be used for that, too)! But without amino acids, proteins can't form in the first place.
The Risk of Not Consuming Enough Amino Acids
Forget protein deficiencies – the more important (and more overlooked) conversation is amino acid deficiencies. You can consume plenty of protein in your diet, but if amino acids are missing, your body will begin to break your own muscle tissue down to try and access the amino acids it needs. Over time, you can experience a wide-reaching array of unwanted effects, including changes to your hair and skin, decreased immune system and a decline in mental health.
How to Balance Amino Acids
The good news is, by simply following a varied, whole foods diet, you are likely to meet your essential amino acid needs. Animal products, including eggs and dairy, contain all of the essential amino acids in varying amounts, making them a “complete” protein. The downside to these sources (especially meat and dairy) is that they can be difficult to digest, causing the body to actually use more amino acids and enzymes to break them down, and other long-term problems like inflammation. Plant-based sources of amino acids are easier to digest and quite plentiful – like nuts, seeds, grains, leafy greens and legumes, but only some are considered “complete” on their own, such as quinoa, soy, Chia, and Hemp. Even so, it's good to remember protein building is a collective game, so you don't need to consume every amino acid at every meal – you can simply enjoy a variety of legumes, grains, vegetables, nuts and even some fruits like Goji Berries – and you'll naturally enjoy a good balance. Of course, if you're worried about meeting your daily amino acid needs, an easy-to-digest protein powder like Protein & Greens Essential Blend made from an assortment of whole foods (and no isolates, which can cause imbalances) is a great place to start!