When shopping around for protein powders, you may notice the packaging boasting about the “amino acids” they have. But what is an amino acid, anyway?
This post is a short explanation of what amino acids are, why you should care about them, how they relate to your protein intake.
What is an Amino Acid?
If you want the scientific definition, head over to Wikipedia. If you can understand all that, awesome. But if you’re like me and need something MUCH simpler, keep reading.
To better explain what amino acids are, let’s break down how they relate to exercise:
When you exercise, your muscles break down and need repair.
To repair your muscles, your body uses protein.
But what is protein? Proteins are nutrients … made up of amino acids!
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins
When it comes to building muscle, some amino acids are more important than others.
Not all of them are “equal” in the way they form proteins.
Some amino acids are “better” for building muscle than others — and therefore, since protein is made up of amino acids — some sources of protein are “better.”
This is the reason that protein powder companies advertise which amino acids their supplements contain.
The different kinds of amino acids
Amino acids are categorized into 3 groups, all based on whether your body can produce them on its own.
1. Essential amino acids
- Your body can’t make these on its own, and need it from an outside source
- Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine
2. Nonessential amino acids
- Your body is able to produce these amino acids on its own
- Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic acid, Glutamic acid, Selenocysteine
3. Semi-essential (or Conditional) amino acids
- Your body can produce these, unless you get sick
- Arginine, Cysteine, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline, Serine, Tyrosine
Next time you’re shopping for protein supplements, you should now be able to recognize some of the amino acids on the label.
There’s one particular sub-group of essential amino acids that you should keep an eye out for:
Branched Chain Amino Acids: the navy seals of amino acids
Finally, you probably have heard of “BCAAs” — this stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids.
If protein was an army you send to regain control of a war zone, BCAAs are like an elite force of well-trained veteran soldiers.
They are a set of 3 essential amino acids (isoleucine, leucine, valine) that are particularly well-suited for repairing muscles.
Remember, when it comes to muscle repair and recovery, not all amino acids are equal. Branched Chain Amino Acids are the most useful for the physically active; your muscles can use them as energy during a workout, have been shown to reduce time needed to recover, and produce a whole bunch of other good effects.
It’s for this reason that you’ll often see BCAAs advertised on the labels of protein supplements.
You can also buy BCAA supplements to make sure you have as much of these in your body as possible.
How this affects your protein intake
If you’re already getting your protein from a variety of sources, then you don’t really need to think too deeply about this. This is just useful to know next time you’re shopping for supplements.
However, if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or have a dietary restriction that restricts your protein sources, then you’ll want to make sure you’re taking in essential amino acids. This is especially important when choosing a protein powder.
For those of you who are working out a lot, it may be worth trying out some BCAA supplements to see how that affects your workouts and recovery.