The Ultimate Low-Down on Proteins and Amino Acids

So, the other day I had a convo about the best protein sources and I realised at a certain point that neither of us knew enough to take the debate to the next level.  Now, for me this is a frustrating place to find myself in, I need to be sure.  I decided to do my own in-depth research on protein sources, amino acids as well as the various diets we can find today. Let’s start with the basics: why do you need to know and eat what you’re about to read?

Using knowledge gained from short-courses on physiology and nutrition conducted by Duke University and University of Pittsburgh respectively, I combined it with every reliable piece I could find on the internet; this is as unbiased of a health and fitness article you would find out there!

Proteins are part of the macronutrient group and amino acids serve as the building blocks of proteins.  The body needs dietary amino acids daily to grow new cells and to replace worn out ones.  There are hundreds of amino acids but we will look at only 20 of them relevant to our bodies.  Our hair, skin, eyesight and general health of our whole body depend on proteins.  The chemical structure of these building blocks contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, much like carbs and fats but the key factor that distinguishes it from carbs and fats is the fact that it contains nitrogen.

In the following list you will also notice the abbreviation BCAA every now and again, something you might already be familiar with if you’ve used protein supplements.  BCAA’s make up a portion of the amino acids in muscle. They work toward reducing breakdown and increasing protein synthesis.  They are unique because they are the only amino acids burned by muscles as fuel.  Your local gym enthusiast will simply put it like this:  Get a BCAA supplement or at least a whey powder with BCAAs added to help you recover faster and come back stronger!

The 20 amino acids can be divided into 2 groups, namely essentials and non-essentials.  The essentials, of which there are 9, are the amino acids our bodies can’t synthesize or unable to make large enough quantities to meet the body’s requirements.  Therefore, it must be provided in our daily diet.



Used in your body to maintain healthy tissues.  Important to maintain good mental and physical health.  Natural detox and produce both red and white blood cells.  Food sources include animal proteins, some grain products (rice, wheat and rye), seafood, beans, mushrooms, potatoes, bananas, cantaloupe and citrus fruits.

IsoleucineProtein rich foods

BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) Primary function is to boost energy.  Increases body’s endurance and help repair muscle tissue.  Also encourages clotting when injured/bruised.  Food sources include nuts, seeds, animal protein lentils, peas and soy.


BCAA.  Unique in its ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.  Plays key role in anabolism after resistance training.  Helps to lose weight and maintain muscle when dieting.  Food sources include brown rice, beans, meat, nuts, soy flour, and whole wheat.


Necessary for normal growth and development. Body uses it to manufacture carnitine (substance used in conversion of fatty acids into energy).  Supports production of other proteins like enzymes, antibodies and hormones.  Helps with calcium absorption and collagen formation.  Food sources include red meat, nuts, dairy, beans and sardines.


Helps the body process and eliminate fat.  Essential for healthy skin, nails and connective tissue. Contains sulphur that helps to produce amino acids cysteine and taurine.  Also needed to create creatine.  Supports liver function by regulating glutathione supplies (needed to help neutralize toxins in liver).  Food sources include beans, eggs, onions, fish, meat and yoghurt.


Needed for normal functioning of the central nervous system.  Body uses it to build epinephrine, dopamine andnorepinephrine (3 neurotransmitters that ‘control’ the way we perceive and interact).  Helps improve memory and overall alertness.  Food sources include meat, milk, oats and wheat germ.


Helps to maintain proper protein balance in our bodies.  Supports immune system function as well as cardiovascular, liver and central nervous system.  Needed to create amino acids glycine and serine.  Helps keep connective tissue and muscles strong and elastic, as well as build strong bones and tooth enamel.  Found in significant amounts in the heart.  Food sources include animal proteins, grains, mushrooms and leafy greens.


Makes people nicer… Contributes to the balancing of our state of mind.  Conversion of amino acid into neurotransmitter serotonin.  Important for development and functioning of many of our organs.  Food sources include soy beans, cocoa powder (without sugar), cashew nuts, chicken breast, peas, pork, salmon, oats, walnuts, eggs, brown rice and milk.

ValineProtein rich food

BCAA.  Promotes normal growth, repair tissues, regulate blood sugar and provides energy.  Needed for proper mental functioning.  Prevents breakdown of muscle during intense physical activity.  Helps to remove potentially harmful toxins such as excess nitrogen from the liver (and to other organs that need it).  Food sources include animal proteins, mushrooms, peanuts and soy.

The rest, 11 non-essential amino acids, can be be made by our bodies.  (In some cases one or two of them may become conditionally essential.)



Helps convert glucose into energy and eliminates toxins from liver.  Helps preserves levels of nitrogen and glucose in our bodies.  Helps to protect cells from being damaged during intense aerobic exercise. Our bodies need it to process the B vitamins.  Food sources include animal proteins and avocado.


Considered semi-essential amino acid.  Only reactant for the molecule NO which is a vasodilator. Involved in metabolic processes.  Helps kidneys remove waste products.  Maintain immune and hormone function.  Improves circulation and strengthens the immune system.  Accelerates healing of wounds and burning of excess fat.  Food sources include walnuts and pine nuts, dairy, pork and chicken.


Needed to maintain balance in nervous system (and brain).  Helps you cope, not too calm and not too nervous.  Energy that our nervous system cells use for metabolism.  Promotes amino acid transformation in the liver.  Food sources include plant based proteins such as legumes, asparagus, potatoes, nuts, seeds, soy and whole grains.  And also in animal proteins such as meats and dairy.

Aspartic Acid

Acts as a neurotransmitter.  Important in development of our nervous system as well as a component of synaptic vesicles (transmits nerve impulses between nerve cells).  Plays a key role in the neuroendocrine system.  Aids functioning of all cells as well as RNA and DNA.  Food sources include soy beans, peanuts, lentils, almonds, chickpeas, shrimps, pork, beef and chicken, flax seed, salmon, eggs and milk.


Contains sulphur.  Helps to fight free-radical activity in our bodies.  Found in beta-keratin.  Helps maintain a healthy and youthful appearance by promoting collagen production and skin elasticity.  Food sources include meat and eggs as well as broccoli, garlic, onions and red peppers.

Glutamic AcidProtein rich food

Most common stimulating neurotransmitter in the central nervous system.  Increases firing of neurons in the central nervous system.  Major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain.  Aids in transportation of potassium into the spinal fluid.  Food sources include fish, eggs, dairy, meat and soy (protein isolate contains one of the highest concentrations of glutamic acid).


Most common amino acid in our muscles.  Brain food.  Plays key role in protein synthesis.  Calming effect and counteracts symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety.  Most important supplier of energy to the immune and intestinal cells.  Improves concentration.  Food sources include meat, beans, spinach, cabbage, parsley, dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, ricotta and cottage cheese.


Smallest and simplest amino acid.  Found in high concentrations in our skin, connective tissues and muscle tissues.  Important in production of nucleic acids, bile acids, creatine phosphate and porphyrins.  Helps with the breakdown of fat by regulating the concentration of bile acids.  Approximately 1/3 of collagen is comprised of glycine.  Helps to stimulate the secretion of human growth hormone.  Food sources include soy beans, spinach, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, pumpkin, banana, kiwi fruit and beans.


Needed for production of collagen and cartilage.  Keeps muscles and joints flexible and reduce effects of UV exposure and ageing of the skin.  Helps breakdown proteins.  Food sources include animal proteins (meat, dairy and eggs), asparagus, avocados, bamboo shoots, broccoli, brown rice, cabbage, chives, spinach, watercress, legumes and nuts.


Important to maintain overall mental and physical health.  Aids in proper functioning of the brain and central nervous system.  Helps form the phospholipids needed to make cells in our bodies.  Involved in function of RNA and DNA, fat and fatty acid metabolism, muscle formation and the maintenance of a healthy immune system.  Food sources include meat, soy, dairy, peanuts and wheat gluten.


Helps regulate mood and stimulates the nervous system.  Needed to make important brain chemicals that help regulate appetite, pain sensitivity and the body’s response to stress.  Needed for normal functioning of the thyroid, pituitary and adrenal glands.  Our bodies use this to build epinephrine, dopamine and norepinephrine.  Food sources include almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy, beans and seeds.

Protein rich food

Combine this list with the daily requirements and List of Best Proteins to get the most out of your food and be able to put an equal amount into your sport and life!



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