Amino acids are small molecules that, when joined together in a long chain and folded into a globular structure, form a protein. Your body creates different proteins by putting together unique combinations and sequences of amino acids, which are provided by the dietary proteins you consume. Food proteins contain 20 different amino acids, and of these, nine cannot be synthesized by your body. Because they are therefore essential to your diet, these nine are known as essential amino acids. Including nutritional sources of essential amino acids in your daily diet is vital for optimal health.
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Every protein that derives from an animal source contains the full complement of essential amino acids. Meat, whether from cows, pigs, sheep or poultry, is a rich source of high-quality protein providing all your essential amino acids. In addition, meat can provide other essential nutrients, such as iron, zinc, niacin and vitamin B-12, depending on the specific source. Some meats, however, contribute high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. You can avoid excessive consumption of these unhealthy fats by selecting lean cuts of meat to benefit from their essential amino acid content while minimizing the health risks of saturated fats.
Similarly to meat, fish contributes all the essential amino acids you require each day. Some types of fish are lean, while others, including salmon, tuna and mackerel, supply your diet with fat in addition to high-quality protein. Unlike the fat in meat, the fat in fish is primarily unsaturated, contributing to the health of your cardiovascular system. Consuming fish not only gives you essential amino acids but also improves your heart health.
Eggs and Milk Products
Both eggs and milk products, including fluid milk, whey supplements, yogurt and cheese, supply high-quality protein with the full range of essential amino acids. In addition to protein, eggs contribute a variety of vitamins and minerals to support good health, while dairy products are especially abundant in calcium and phosphorus, minerals that strengthen your teeth and bones. To minimize the fat content of eggs and milk products while benefitting from their amino acid content, you can select egg white products rather than whole eggs and consume reduced-fat dairy items instead of full-fat products.
The majority of plant proteins are incomplete because they lack at least one essential amino acid. As different plant sources are low in specific amino acids, you can combine complementary plant sources to create a nutritionally complete protein. For example, grains supply the essential amino acids missing in legumes, and legumes supply the essential amino acids missing in grains. Eating black beans on a corn tortilla, for instance, supplies your diet with all your essential amino acids.