Commonly referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’, amino acids are far more crucial than what you think. They are absolutely critical for healthy functioning bodies. 20% of the human body is made from protein and amino acids are the building blocks that support this process.
Amino acids are required in virtually all biological processes. They are key structural components of all the tissues in our body, they provide structure to our cells and they perform functions that no other compounds can take credit for. They are involved in the transport and storage of nutrients and they are one of the most important elements to healing and repairing tissue. Amino acids critically support our body as a whole. A diet void of amino acids is a diet void of life. Just joking. But seriously.
Amino acids are abundantly found in both animal AND plant based foods. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the vegan diet is that it's extremely difficult to consume enough protein.
There are 9 amino acids in particular which are called essential amino acids, because our body cannot synthesise them. This means, it is ESSENTIAL that we obtain them in the diet every. single. day.
Animal products contain all the essential amino acids in one, but the vegan diet may be a little more difficult to ensure all 9 are being consumed each day. Without them, the body’s cells use their own proteins to get the missing aminos. Eventually, this leads to muscle and organ degradation which could cause a whole host of systemic problems down the line.
Here’s a run through of the essential amino acids, what they do and where to get them in plant foods.
L-phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that is converted into another amino acid called tyrosine. This amino acid is needed to form important brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) and thyroid hormones, which are responsible for the regulation of our metabolism.
Vegan sources of phenylalanine include pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, almonds and pistachios.
Valine promotes the repair of tissues. It helps with energy production, regulates blood sugar levels and assists with normal growth and development.
Vegan sources of valine include soy products such as tofu or soy protein isolate, spirulina, mushrooms, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and whole grains such as brown rice or whole oats.
Leucine is the fourth most concentrated amino acid found within muscle tissue. Leucine helps to maintain nitrogen balance and energy supply.
Vegan foods rich in this amino acid include soybeans, hemp seeds, peanuts, almonds, lentils, whole oats, chickpeas, corn and rice.
Isoleucine is also involved in muscle development and repair. It is broken down by the body to provide energy within the muscle tissue and assist the body when recovering from strenuous physical exercise.
Vegan sources of isoleucine include all seeds, nuts, lentils, soy protein isolate, spirulina, spinach, cabbage and kidney beans.
This is a key essential amino acid that helps to build a healthy immune system. It is involved in the development of antibodies and has important antiviral properties. Studies show that this particular amino acid is especially beneficial for safeguarding against herpes virus. Lysine also assists with the formation of collagen and muscle tissue.
Vegan sources of lysine include hemp seeds, lima beans, potatoes, savoury yeast flakes, soy products, raw watercress and spirulina.
This essential amino acid helps to maintain the balance of protein within the body and therefore supports normal growth and development. It is also involved in supporting the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune function, and liver function. Threonine is required to produce the amino acids serine and glycine that produce elastin, collagen and muscle tissue.
Vegan sources of this essential amino acid include grains (brown rice, whole oats, buckwheat, rye or wheat), lentils, flaxseed, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, chickpeas, walnuts, almonds, spinach, asparagus and mushrooms.
This is an important one. Tryptophan is required to produce the elusive neurotransmitter serotonin. The level of serotonin in the body has a direct influence on emotions and mood and deficiency has been linked in numerous studies to a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
The best vegan sources of tryptophan can be found in brown rice, hemp seeds, peanuts, spirulina, mushrooms, asparagus, kidney beans, mung beans and soy protein.
Methionine is a sulphur-containing essential amino acid and one of the most researched amino acids. It has been found to support the growth of new blood vessels, be involved in wound healing, reduces risk of mental health disorders, supports neurotransmitters and hormones and is involved in our liver detoxification pathways. The body also needs high levels of methionine to produce other amino acids as well as the powerful glutathione. Read here http://www.thenutrientproject.com.au/articles/gluta-what for information on what glutathione is.
Good natural and vegan sources of methionine include lentils, garlic, onions, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, soybeans, spirulina, mushrooms and beans.
Histidine is the amino acid that is most abundant in haemoglobin, the iron-rich protein that carries oxygen to every cell in the human body. Therefore, ensuring adequate intake of histidine through food is incredibly vital. Histidine deficiency has been linked to cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic allergies.
Vegan sources of histidine include firm tofu, hemp seeds, spirulina, kidney beans and sunflower seeds.
If you feel you are not acquiring enough of these compounds in your diet, that doesn’t mean you should go to a health food store and buy a single amino acid and just focus on that. Amino acids works synergistically with other amino acids, other nutrients and other compounds. As you can see, most nutrients are precursors to other nutrients, meaning supplementing or targeting one specific vitamin won’t necessarily change what you are trying to achieve. This is why food is the most ideal form of changing nutrient intake - because vitamins and minerals don’t exist alone in food. They exist together, like nature just knew what we needed to continue living strong, healthy and happy lives!