By Dava Stewart
Amino acids are sometimes called “the building blocks of life.” They are organic compounds that combine to form proteins. Proteins, of course, are necessary for the human body to function. Through the process of digestion, food containing protein is broken down into amino acids, which are then sent the part of the body where they are needed. Muscle building and repair require amino acids.
There are 20 different amino acids, and they are divided into three categories:
Essential – The nine essential amino acids are required by the body, yet the body does not produce them. Essential amino acids must be consumed in the form of food.
Non-essential – The four non-essential amino acids are produced by the human body. It is not essential to consume them as part of a healthy diet.
Conditional – The remaining amino acids are called conditional. In general, the amino acids in this group are not essential, but they may become so in times of illness or stress.
Humans consume meat, which is muscle, the body breaks the protein in the meat down into amino acids, and then uses those amino acids (or some of them) to build muscle. It’s one of those cool, cyclical processes of nature.
You may be wondering, “But what about vegetarians?” It’s a good question. Conventional wisdom says that strict vegetarians, or vegans, need to supplement the essential amino acids. However, there are many thousands of healthy, supplement-free vegetarians in the world who would dispute that “wisdom.” Every human body is individual and unique in its needs. Some vegetarians may need a supplement, others do not.
The vast majority of the population in the United States eats enough protein every day to meet their essential amino acid requirements. The standard recommendation is that 30-35% of your daily calories should be made up of protein. For most people, that happens with few dietary changes.
There are some special circumstances, such as extreme training or certain health conditions, in which amino acids are beneficial. People who need or want to build muscle, or vegetarians who struggle to consume an adequate amount of protein may find supplements beneficial. Doctors may prescribe amino acid supplements for a variety of medical conditions. However, with 20 different amino acids, determining which ones should be supplemented may be difficult for a person with limited knowledge. It is always best to consult an expert with questions about supplements.