By: Clifford Sonnie, M.D., M.P.H.
A while ago I wrote about the importance of proteins. I mentioned that they were important as a source of amino acids and were vital in our diet as we are unable to store proteins like we can fats and carbohydrates (some of us better than others). Well, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about these amino acids so I thought I’d talk about ‘em today.
First, a tad bit of science, I promise. Amino acids are made up of an amine (which is a nitrogen) and an acid (which is a carbon, oxygen and a hydrogen). These four substances come in different ratios and as such, make up different amino acids. Amino acids are the end product of the body’s break down of proteins and are the building blocks of different proteins that the body needs. There are over forty amino acids in nature and they are needed for the production of enzymes (those things that make the chemical reactions in our bodies work), hair, skin, muscles and yes, in every single internal organ of the body. So, deficiencies can lead to a whole boat load of illnesses. Ok, of the forty amino acids we are only concerned about the “standard” 20. The others are referred to as “nonstandard” and are involved in the body but are not mandatory. It’s not quite that simple but I’m not going to bore you with it. Back to the twenty.
They come in two flavors. Nonessential amino acids which are actually made by the body using the break down of other proteins as well as vitamins, minerals and nutrients to make these 12. Essential amino acids which are not produced by the body and we have to get them by food or supplements of which there are 8. I will list them for you, but that is as far as I want to go today. The actual role each amino acid plays is fodder for another article. The first 12 are the nonessential amino acids and the last 8 are the essential. Alanine, Arginine, Aspartate, Asparagine, Cysteine, Glutamate, Glutamine, Glycine, Histadine, Proline, Serine and Tyrosine are nonessential. Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine are essential. As a note, even though cysteine, tyrosine, histadine and arginine are nonessential, they have been found to be needed in the diet of infants.
So, now that you are sufficiently bored with science, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Where do we get the essential amino acids and how do we make sure our body can make the nonessential amino acids. The answer is simple. The correct diet. Any protein that contains all the essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese are such proteins. Near complete proteins are plant foods that contain many of the essential amino acids. These include buckwheat, amaranth, hempseed and quinoa to name but a few. Is it possible to get all essential amino acids from a vegetarian diet? Yes, but it is difficult and will require a diverse diet and in large enough quantities to satisfy the body’s need. A combination of the two, dead animals and dead plants, is the best formula for a diet to get all the essential amino acids you need. I hope that was politically correct enough to satisfy both the beef growers and vegans because now I have a headache. I have never been known as the “Duke of Tact”. I advocate meat. No, not a 5-pound carcass done medium well. The size of your palm is more than enough and yes, we should be eating 3 or 4 times the amount of vegetables as we do fruits and animal products. Remember I said that nonessential amino acids need vitamins, minerals and the like for the body to make them? Well where do you think we get those ingredients? Yes, there are supplements and if taken, take only natural sources but a good diverse diet is the answer. And as such it should be a non vegetarian one, but leaning a whole lot in the direction of a salads and such. Sorry, got off on a tangent. My bad.
Bottom line, the body is an amazing machine. It needs amino acids and makes them too. It takes protein and breaks them down to the essential amino acid it needs and can break them down further and use those substances elsewhere. Let our bodies operate the way God intended. Our job is to give it a good quality clean fuel and to take it out and blow out the pipes now and again. (sorry, reverted back to my Collinwood days in the 60s). Eat well, drink much (water), get off your butt and move, and enjoy life, friends and family. How much easier can it get? As always, any change in diet or the like should be run past your family MD or DO or call and stop in and we can talk. After all, the smart health care consumer is informed and aware.
Clifford Sonnie, M.D. is the Medical Director of the Balance of Life Clinic