Monday, 27 October 2014

What Are : Amino Acids?

Welcome to another post in which I try to clarify and explain another health and fitness term that you may have come across.

For a long time I glossed over the words "amino acids" in much the same way as I glossed over "creatine", not being entirely sure what they were and therefore disregarding them when I saw them listed on supplements and so on. But it turns out that amino acids are pretty important to us.

What are they?
You're probably more familiar with how important protein is to us generally and also specifically as athletes (yes in my eyes if you take part in regular exercise you are an athlete). Well amino acids are the basic building blocks that make up these all-important proteins which are responsible for specific and unique functions within the body. As well as building muscle, proteins are involved in growing skin and hair, muscle contractions, transporting oxygen and fatty acids around the body, clotting blood and more.

There are 20 different amino acids and we need all of them to create the proteins that are so important to us. Out of the twenty amino acids, our bodies can synthesise twelve but the remaining eight, known as "essential" or "indispensable" amino acids, have to be obtained what we eat.

How can I get them?

We can ensure we get the essential amino acids that we're incapable of making ourselves, by including protein in our diet. Supplementation is available, and I'll touch on that later, but I believe it's far better, and completely possible, to get your requirements from your normal diet. It's worth noting that there are two classes of proteins that reflect their amino acid content: "complete" proteins, which contain all of the essential amino acids that the body requires for making proteins and "incomplete" proteins which are low in some essential amino acids. As a general rule, protein from animal sources are complete and plant sources are incomplete.

Sources of Animal Proteins 

  • Red meat
  • Chicken and other white meats
  • Fish
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
These can be high in saturated fats (the ones we con't want too much of) so in the interests of a healthy and balanced diet, if you eat these foods, try to choose ones that are low in saturated fat, such as fish, game, poultry, lean meat and low fat milk and cheese, and eat them in moderation.

Sources of Plant Proteins 

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans and pulses 
Because plant proteins are "incomplete" you need to combine them in order to get the whole range of amino acids. Because if this it's often thought that people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet struggle to get enough protein in their diet. I can assure you that this is not the case, if you eat a balanced diet, and combining proteins isn't hard. 

Let's take beans on toast as an example. Toast (made of grains) is low or limiting in the two essential amino acids lysine and threonine. Adding beans from the legumes and pulses food group, which are rich in those essential amino acids, will mean you have a full complement of amino acids in one meal. Job done.

You can read more about combining protein sources here.

Amino acids are among the most common nutritional supplements taken by top athletes and average exercisers alike. However, the benefits of supplementing with individual amino acids are not proven and their use is not without side effects. Amino acids are absorbed far more quickly and efficiently from natural sources (food) than from artificial ones (supplements) so while I personally wouldn't recommend supplementation as a course for everyone, it's an option for those with a very limited diet.

A note on supplements. Taking supplements of single amino acids can inhibit the absorption of other amino acids. This is because the amino acid present in the greatest concentration will be absorbed preferentially over other amino acids. This could lead to an imbalance and possibly affect your health, so just be aware.

I hope that's been helpful!

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