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What are Essential Amino Acids?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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Essential amino acids are amino acids that are not synthesized by the body and must be obtained from food and other sources of nutrition such as supplements. While there is some difference of opinion on how many of unsynthesized amino acids actually exist, the number is generally identified as eight. All eight of these indispensable amino acids can be obtained from consuming a balanced diet.

The eight essential amino acids agreed upon by most experts are lysine, methionine, leucine, tryptophan, valine, phenylalanine, threonine and isoleucine. One of the best sources for obtaining all these amino acids is food with a high protein content. Fortunately, protein can be obtained from meats, poultry, vegetables and dairy products with relative ease. Fish is also a good source of several of the essential amino acids.

It is important to note that food can also be a good source of the nonessential amino acids as well. While the body does synthesize amino acids classified as nonessential, various health issues can make it necessary to supplement these acids from time to time. As with essential amino acids, there are also nutritional supplements that can provide many of these acids if the body’s natural processes and the daily diet do not provide an acceptable amount.

Fortunately, the essential amino acids are often found in foods that are common to most diets. Eggs, milk, and cheese are part of many different prepared dishes and contain a number of the most important amino acids. Pork and beef are excellent sources of amino acid rich proteins, as well as various types of fresh water and salt-water fish. Buckwheat is an example of a grain that can also help supply essential amino acids. For people who choose to limit the consumption of meat and dairy products, soy beans is a viable means of obtaining these essential acids through diet.

Many recipes for ethnic dishes contain ingredients that will provide an ample supply of essential amino acids. Three bean salads are loaded with amino acids. A Mexican meal consisting of tacos, refried beans with cheese, and rice provide ample amounts of these acids. The Cajun favorite of red beans and rice also is a simple and delicious way to obtain part of the essential amino acids required as part of a balanced diet.

When diet restrictions make it necessary to avoid certain foods that are high in essential amino acids, nutritional supplements are an excellent alternative. Supplements of this type can easily be obtained at most health food stores.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By bluedolphin — On Jul 24, 2014

@ysmina-- If you don't eat meat, dairy or soy beans, then I think that you will benefit from an amino acid supplement. Although I think it's best to get amino acids from food, I realize that this is not possible for some people. Do look up vegetarian rich foods rich in essential amino acids and try to eat more of them. If you still feel that this is not enough, use a supplement.

I recommend using a liquid supplement because it's easier for the body to absorb this type. And it's easier to swallow liquid supplements than tablets.

By ysmina — On Jul 23, 2014

I'm vegetarian and I also have a lactose intolerance so I don't eat much meat or dairy. As for soy beans, I have my concerns because most soy bean products are made from genetically engineered soy beans. So what should I do? Should I take an essential amino acid supplement?

By SarahGen — On Jul 23, 2014

Beans and whole grains seem to be very rich in essential amino acids. That's great because I love both. It's funny that beans is often considered a poor man's food. It's not only delicious, but it's also very beneficial. Beans are loaded with proteins and fiber, and apparently amino acids as well. We eat beans two or three times a week in my house, especially in winter. No wonder we don't get sick much in winter! Amino acids are important for maintaining a strong immune system, so people who eat a lot of foods rich in amino acids won't get sick as much.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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