Are you wondering what foods have essential amino acids (EAAs) and how they are essential in your body and diet? If this has been a wonder in your mind then this article is for you. Read on to find out more on the best essential amino acids foods, what are the 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) and why they are deemed as ‘essential’, as well as vegan options that can add these aminos to your diet, and more.
What Are Amino Acids?
In the human body, there are approximately 20,000 unique protein encoding genes responsible for more than 100,000 unique proteins. At the moment, there are roughly about 500 amino acids that have been identified in nature, but only about 20 of these are needed to make all the proteins found in the human body and most other forms of life (7).
Of these 20, the human body can produce 10 of them, which are namely alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine. The other ten include all the 9 essential amino acids and one conditionally essential amino acid (14).
What Are The Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)?
Like the nonessential amino acids, the essential ones are also used by the body as the building blocks for proteins and for the production of creatine, peptide hormones, some neurotransmitters, and more. However, unlike the nonessential amino acids, our bodies, unlike plants do not have all the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of all of them.
Without all the 20 amino acids our bodies are at a higher risk of decreased immunity, digestive problems, depression, fertility issues, lower mental alertness, slowed growth in children, and more. Essential amino acids are thus known as ‘essential’ because since your body cannot make them, you have to get them into your body through your diet or risk any of the aforementioned amino acid deficiency illnesses (15).
If you are wondering what foods have 9 essential amino acids, it is best to first know what they are and their functions in your body. The 9 essential amino acids include isoleucine, histidine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. The uses of these essential amino acids are as follows (13):
This is mostly used for the creation of other amino acids, including the nonessential amino acid, tyrosine. Tyrosine is then used by the body to produce several neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline).
Not only does it play a huge role in protein synthesis, but it also helps in the production of collagen and elastin, regulation of hormones and enzymes, maintenance of bone strength, immune function as well as the absorption of calcium.
It facilitates growth, the creation of blood cells, and tissue repair. The body also metabolizes histidine into histamine, which is vital for your immunity, reproductive health and sexual function, digestion as well as your sleep-wake cycle.
While threonine has several uses, its main role lies in the production of collagen and elastin. It is also used in helping to maintain a health gut and digestive tract as well as fat metabolism and immune function.
It is mostly used in the production of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that are associated with sleep as not only do they have natural sedative effects but also help regulate our sleep and wake cycles.
It is one of the three branches of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) used for protein synthesis and muscle repair. Leucine is also used for the production of growth hormones, regulation of blood sugar levels, wound healing, and more.
The second one of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), isoleucine is the primarily amino acid present in muscle tissue and regulates energy levels. Isoleucine is used by the body to regulate blood sugar and energy levels as well as wound healing, hormone production, immunity, and hemoglobin production.
It contains sulfur which makes it a powerful antioxidant. Methionine is helpful in skin and hair growth and helps your body detoxify heavy metals like lead and mercury from the body.
The final one of the three branched-chain amino acids, it is vital for mental focus, muscle coordination, and emotional calm. Like leucine and isoleucine, it also helps regulate blood sugar and maintain energy levels.
Arginine is the final amino acid that the human body cannot produce. It is classified as a non-essential amino acid (or a conditionally-essential amino acid) that is required for muscle metabolism and is used for the synthesis of urea, nitric oxide, polyamines, proline, glutamate, creatine, and agmatine (6).
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The Best Vegan Foods With All Essential Acids
Plant-based diets such as veganism and vegetarianism have been around for ages but are just now gaining popularity. Such diets are rich in dietary fiber, polyphenols, and antioxidant vitamins and scientific research has shown that such eating plans have incredible health benefits. Some of these potential benefits include:
- They are good for your heart health. They help reduce your risk of getting heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, all factors that contribute to heart disease.
- Reduce your risk of certain types of cancer namely colorectal, lung, esophageal, bladder, and gastric cancer.
- May help prevent and control type II diabetes as they have been linked to controlling blood sugar.
- Have been linked to lower BMI.
- Reduce the risk of cognitive impairment illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and more.
- Reduces mortality rates.
Despite all the above mentioned health benefits and more, plant based diets, have been known to have some downsides, with one of them being nutritional deficiencies with respect to vitamins, minerals, and proteins.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies
Some common nutritional deficiencies that vegans and other people on a plant-based diets may face include (3):
- Protein deficiency.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency which can lead to macrocytic anemia and irreversible nerve damage.
- Iron deficiency which can cause anemia, fatigue, heart palpitations, pale skin, and breathlessness.
- Omega 3 fatty acids deficiency – Omega 3s are essential for maintaining heart health, protecting against the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, dry eye disease, cancer, age-related macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and more.
- Iodine deficiency which could lead to hypothyroidism.
- Calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies which are two minerals that are necessary for bone health, immunity, muscle health and more.
- Essential amino acids deficiencies – While some people on a plant based diet can eat meat, vegans, who do not consume meat, dairy products, and eggs, they often risk having an amino acid deficiency.
Foods That Contain All Nine Essential Amino Acids
However, thankfully, there are some vegan foods with all essential amino acids that can be added into a vegan diet to help prevent this deficiency. These foods that contain all nine essential amino acids include (4, 1, 2):
It might be a grain, but quinoa is a complete protein which means that it has all the 9 essential amino acids and thus a great addition to any vegan or vegetarian diet. This whole grain is also gluten free, rich in fiber, as well as other minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, folate, and thiamin (aka Vitamin B1).
Tofu, edamame, and tempeh are some popular vegan foods with all essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. These three soy products are also high in fiber and among some plant-based products with the highest amount of plant based protein (36 percent to 46 percent depending on the soybean variety they come from (12).
While lentils are not a complete protein – as they are low in methionine – combining them with other high protein foods like quinoa can help you get the 9 essential amino acids that you need. An important point to note is that if you were to sprout lentils before consuming them, it goes a long way into helping them become a more complete protein and thus easily making them 9 essential amino acids foods (9).
If you are looking for something to make up your daily intake of essential amino acids but do not want to be stuck making a whole meal, why not snack on pumpkin seeds instead? Not only are they incredibly high in protein – 21 grams per cup – but they are also high in antioxidants that help prevent inflammation, fiber which is great for bowel movement and helps keep you fuller for longer, as well as magnesium, which has been known to control blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, and maintain healthy bones, among many other benefits.
This is a gluten-free pseudo cereal that is a popular staple food in Incan, Mayan, and Aztec cultures. While the grain, oil, and leaves are often used as food, the grain is the greatest source of protein among all three options.
Like Amaranth, buckwheat is another pseudo cereal that contains all the essential acids and can be used in a proper vegan diet. This pseudo cereal is a complete protein that has many essential minerals, including phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron, which make it great for heart health, digestion, managing diabetes, and more.
Regarded as a superfood, spirulina is a blue-green algae that is either consumed as a tablet or a powder added into smoothies, juices, soups, salads, and more. It is also a powerful antioxidant that can prevent inflammation, lower cholesterol, could reduce blood pressure, and may aid in sugar control.
Other vegan friendly 9 essential amino acids foods include hemp seeds, chia seeds, seitan, and Mycoprotein.
Complementary Proteins For All 9 Essential Amino Acids To Vegan And Vegetarian Diets
Because not a lot of plant based foods contain all the nine essential acids, adding complementary proteins to your diet can help you get any missing ones in your diet. Protein complementation is when you combine two vegetable proteins to get all 9 amino acids that are essential for your body (8). Examples include:
Rice And Beans
While beans are a great source of protein, they sadly do not have all essential acids as they are quite low in methionine and high in lysine. On the other hand, rice, both brown and white is low in lysine and high in methionine. Combining these two foods together helps make a complete protein.
Hummus And Pita Bread
Hummus is made from chickpeas which is high in the amino acid lysine, which is found in low amounts in pita bread.
Peanut Butter And Whole Wheat Bread
Peanuts are high in lysine which complements the low amounts of the essential amino acid in whole wheat bread.
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Other 9 Amino Acids Foods That May Not Be Vegan-Friendly
If you are not vegan and are wondering what foods contain all essential amino acids then you are in luck. Here are some foods that are high in all essential amino acids:
If you are looking for what foods have essential amino acids, then eggs are your best bet. Not only are they a great source of protein, but they are also a complete protein making them the best foods with essential amino acids.
Meat And Meat Products. Turkey And Chicken Meat
These are foods that contain all essential amino acids. Not only are they a great source of the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine, but they also have high quantities of the other 6 remaining essentials (11).
Cheese. Yogurt And Other Dairy Products
Cheese, like animal products such as meat and eggs, is a complete protein that has all the essential amino acids. Because cheese is often high in salt and saturated fats, which could lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure, be sure to only consume it in small amounts.
They might not be essentially none vegan but mushrooms are great essential amino acids foods which not only have the 9 essential ones, but also 6 other amino acids making a total of 17.
Foods With Higher Amounts Of Certain Amino Acids
While all the above named foods and food combinations have all the 9 essential amino acids, some foods have higher amounts of certain amino acids than others. They are as follows:
- Lysine can be found in higher quantities in sources like meat, soy products, beans, eggs and pumpkin seeds.
- Histidine is found in higher quantities in fish, poultry, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and meat.
- Foods highest in threonine include lean beef, chicken, pork, tuna, tofu, beans, milk, cheese, green peas, eggs, seeds, and nuts.
- Foods highest in methionine include options like eggs, seeds and nuts
- Valine is found in high amounts in red meat, wholegrains, chicken, pork, and peanuts.
- Examples of foods highest in isoleucine include cheese, lentils, dairy and vegetables such as peas.
- Leucine can be found in high quantities in salmon, chickpeas, brown rice, soybeans, and eggs.
- Phenylalanine – You can find it in high amounts in dairy, pork, beans, and nuts.
- Tryptophan – This essential amino acid is highest in pumpkin and sesame seeds, turkey, milk, eggs, and fish.
Which Foods Contain The Eight Essential Amino Acids?
It is important to note that there are nine and not eight essential amino acids. The only reason why people assumed that there were 8 essentials and not nine is because, for a time, scientists did not consider histidine as part of the essential amino acids.
They believed that it was only useful in infancy and thus classified as a conditional amino acid. This, however, has changed and histidine has been re-classified as one of the essentials, because it is useful in humans, not only in infancy but throughout our lives (15, 10).
All the above mentioned foods have all the 9 essential aminos.
The Bottom Line
Irrespective of your diet, whether plant-based or not, the 9 essential amino acids foods must be included in your diet. An important fact to realize is that while vegans may find it harder to consume proteins, it does not mean that it is an impossible feat. Because plants, unlike humans make these essential amino acids, there are a lot of plant-based, vegan-friendly options for you.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- 9 Complete Proteins That Aren’t Meat (2021, thehealthy.com)
- 10 Complete Proteins Vegans Need to Know About (2019, greatist.com)
- 10 Vegan Deficiencies to be Aware of – and How to Nix Them (2021, womenshealthmag.com)
- 11 Complete Protein Sources That Every Vegan Should Know About (2012, peta.org)
- Amino Acid Compositions of 27 Food Fishes and Their Importance in Clinical Nutrition (2014, hindawi.com)
- Arginine: beyond protein (2006, academic.oup.com)
- Biochemistry, Essential Amino Acids (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Complementary Proteins for Vegetarian and Vegan Diets (2020, verywellfit.com)
- Do Lentils Contain All Nine Essential Amino Acids? (2018, livestrong.com)
- Evidence that histidine is an essential amino acid in normal and chronically uremic man. (1975, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Food Products as Sources of Protein and Amino Acids—The Case of Poland (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Soy, Soy Foods and Their Role in Vegetarian Diets (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The 9 Essential Amino Acids To Lower Blood Sugar, Build Muscle & Reduce Stress (2019, mindbodygreen.com)
- The Chemistry of Amino Acids (n.d., biology.arizona.edu)
- Why Are the Eight Essential Amino Acids Called Essential? (2018, healthyeating.sfgate.com)