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Amino acids: the building blocks of proteins
Amino acids: the building blocks of proteins

Amino acids: the building blocks of proteins

  • Reading time: 9 min.

Proteins are important for various physiological processes in our bodies. It is important for humans to get enough protein, especially strength athletes and bodybuilders. Proteins help you recover after an intense workout and stimulate the building of muscle mass. But what do proteins actually consist of? Proteins are made up of smaller particles called amino acids. In this XXL Nutrition blog we'll be telling you all about these protein building blocks!

What are amino acids?

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Think of a protein as a kind of necklace, with the links of the necklace being the different amino acids that make up the protein. There are 3 types of amino acids: essential, semi-essential and non-essential. Your body can make non-essential amino acids itself and is also able to make semi-essential amino acids. Only in rare circumstances, such as when you're ill, is your body unable to produce them. Essential amino acids always need to be obtained from what you eat, as your body cannot produce them itself.

Proteins differ in structure from carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates and fats contain carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) atoms. Protein also contains nitrogen (N) as a building block.

There are a total of 22 different amino acids, 9 of which are essential. All of these amino acids are listed in the table below. Each food has a different amino acid profile varies, meaning that eating a varied diet will provide you with all 22.

Essential amino acids Semi-essential amino acids Non-essential amino acids Histidine Arginine Alanine Isoleucine Asparagine Aspartic acid Leucine Glutamine Cysteine Lysine Glycine Cystine Methionine Serine Glutamic acid Phenylalanine Proline Tyrosine Threonine Hydroxyproline Tryptophan Valine

Essential amino acids

As mentioned above, our bodies cannot make these essential amino acids on their own, so you need to get these from food. What if you don't get enough of these amino acids? You may then suffer a deficiency, which can have negative effects on the correct functioning of your body.

Fortunately however, with a varied and protein-rich diet you can get all the essential amino acids your body needs. For some people however, such as vegetarians and vegans, this can be a trickier. This is because animal-based proteins are particular in rich in these essential amino acids. These include meat, eggs and poultry. Plant-based sources of protein that also contain all 9 essential amino acids include soy, tofu, quinoa and hemp[1].

  • Phenylalanine is converted into tyrosine, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine by the body.
  • Histidine is used to make histamine.
  • Isoleucine is a BCAA and helps with building muscle mass.
  • Leucine is a BCAA (branched chain amino acid) that plays an important role in protein synthesis.
  • Lysine contributes to protein synthesis.
  • Methionine is a sulphur-containing amino acid used for protein synthesis.
  • Threonine is a hydrophilic amino acid and major constituent of collagen and elastin.
  • Tryptophan is a precursor for the production of serotonin and melatonin.
  • Valine is the last of the 3 BCAAs and contributes to building muscle mass.

Semi-essential amino acids

Semi-essential amino acids can also be produced by your body. Only in very rare cases will your body be unable to produce enough of these amino acids, such as when you are ill, during pregnancy or among small children.

For example, your body cannot produce enough arginine when you are recovering from a severe injury or when your body is fighting diseases such as cancer[2]. Other semi-essential amino acids, such as glycine and arginine, are not produced in sufficient quantities during pregnancy[3]. In this instance, it is extra important to get these amino acids from food (or possibly from supplements).

  • Arginine is a precursor of nitric oxide, a neurotransmitter that can help with circulation.
  • Asparagine plays a role in the production of other amino acids and their absorption.
  • Glutamine plays a role in the metabolism of amino acids, carbohydrates and fats.
  • Glycine is produced in the liver and makes up about a third of the collagen in your body.
  • Serine is an amino acid used for protein synthesis.
  • Proline is a hydrophobic amino acid and is involved in the creation of collagen.

Non-essential amino acids

Non-essential amino acids are produced by your body itself, which means you do not need to get these amino acids from your diet or from supplements.

  • Alanine is an amino acid that forms part of almost every protein molecule.
  • Aspartic acid is the precursor of aspartate, which is a stimulating neurotransmitter.
  • Cysteine is a sulphur-containing amino acid.
  • Cystine is an amino acid involved in the process of protein synthesis.
  • Glutamic acid, also known as glutamate, is a stimulating neurotransmitter.
  • Tyrosine is a hydrophilic amino acid and precursor for the production of dopamine and thyroid hormones.
  • Hydroxyproline is the hydroxylated form of proline and a building block of collagen.

Whey Protein has a complete amino acid profile

You can get all the important amino acids you need if you eat enough protein on a daily basis. As mentioned before, protein-rich food sources such as meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy products, soy and tofu are rich in essential amino acids. But did you know that Whey Protein also has a complete amino acid profile?

Whey protein is derived from cow's milk and contains all 9 essential amino acids. This means that a whey protein shake is a perfect addition to your diet if you want an easy way to get more protein (and amino acids). Please note that whey protein powder is not suitable if you are vegan or are lactose intolerance.

Amino acids from food or from supplements?

To get all the important amino acids your body requires, you need to get enough protein every day and from a variety of sources. You do not have to use supplements for this, as there are plenty of foods with a complete amino acid profile. However, in some cases drinking a protein shake or taking a BCAA supplement may be a good idea.

This is especially true if you do not eat (or drink) animal products: vegans (and, to a lesser, extent vegetarians) run the risk of not getting enough essential amino acids, and consuming extra protein and alternating this with a lot of plant-based protein sources can prevent this from happening. However, for the sake of convenience, you can also choose to take an amino acid supplement.

Do you eat both animal and plant products and follow the recommended guides for the amount of protein you should be eating every day? Then additional supplements to get the amino acids you need may not be absolutely necessary.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein

In this article you have found out more about amino acids, the building blocks of protein. We have tried to answer the question "what are amino acids?". Proteins are made up of tiny particles which all have a function in our bodies. We make a distinction between essential amino acids, semi-essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. These latter two can be produced by your body, while the first group need to obtained from the food you eat. In addition to eating protein-rich foods, you can also choose to drink a protein shake or take a BCAA supplement to get more amino acids.





Marvin Grouw
This blog is written by:
Marvin Grouw
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