Protein is one of the most crucial nutrients to the human body and a little bit of protein can go a long way in improving varying aspects of your health. From the strength of your body to that of your hair, skin, and nails, protein’s amino acid chains perform vital tasks within your body that make it a prime nutrient to be sure you get enough of. Protein is also essential for healthy neurotransmitter function, along with overall energy levels. While carbs and fats have their place in a diet, most everyone knows that protein is a nutrient we shouldn’t leave out.
The Real Deal on Amino Acids in a Plant-Based Diet
Luckily, all foods contain a little protein, and a large variety of plant-based foods provide many of the essential amino acids once believed to only exist within animal-based foods. Essential amino acids are amino acids that are the building blocks of protein that our body can’t produce by itself. In other words, if we don’t eat them, we won’t get enough of them. But steak, beef, chicken, eggs, pork, and milk are not the only sources of essential amino acids; plants have plenty of them our bodies can use the same way.
Out of the 22 amino acids that exist, nine are essential and 11 are non-essential. Below are a list of the nine essential amino acids and plant-based foods that are good sources of each. Some sources of amino acids, like chia and hemp seeds, also offer all essential amino acids, making them a complete protein, though remember that all plant-based foods can form complete proteins within the body once ingested.
Here’s what each essential amino acid does and where to find it:
Leucine is one of the best essential amino acids for stimulating muscle strength and growth, and also referred to as a BCAA (brand-chain amino acid). Leucine helps regulate your blood sugar by moderating insulin into the body during and after exercise and can even help prevent and treat depression by the way it acts on neurotransmitters in the brain.
Good plant-based sources include: seaweed, pumpkin, peas and pea protein, whole grain rice, sesame seeds, watercress, turnip greens, soy, sunflower seeds, kidney beans, figs, avocados, raisins, dates, apples, blueberries, olives and even bananas. Don’t limit yourself to one food of these choices, and aim for a serving of either seaweed, leafy greens, hemp seeds, chia seeds, grains, legumes, seeds, or beans at each meal to be sure you get enough high-quality plant protein.
Isoleucine is another BCAA similar to leucine, however with a few different responsibilities. It is an isolated form of leucine that specifically helps the body produce energy and hemoglobin. It’s also vital assisting in nitrogren growth within the muscle cells, especially in children.
Plant-based sources include: rye, soy, cashews, almonds, oats, lentils, beans, brown rice, cabbage, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spinach, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, cranberries, quinoa, blueberries, apples, and kiwis.
Lysine is responsible for proper growth and in the production of carnitine (a nutrient responsible for converting fatty acids into fuel to lower cholesterol). It also helps the body absorb calcium for even further bone strength and also aids in collagen production. It’s vital to get enough of this amino acid since deficiency can lead to nausea, depression, fatigue, muscle depletion and even osteoporosis.
Good plant-based sources of lysine include: beans (the best), watercress, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spirulina, parsley, avocados, soy protein, almonds, cashews, and some legumes with lentils and chickpeas being two of the best.
Methionine helps form cartilage in the body through the use of sulfur. Sulfur is a mineral essential to the production of bone cartilage and no other amino acids contain sulfur aside from methionine. People who don’t eat enough sulfur-containing foods to produce methionine in the body may suffer arthritis, damaged tissue, and poor healing. Methionine also aids in the production of muscle growth and formation of creatine, needed for optimal cellular energy.
Good plant-based sources of sulfur include: sunflower seed butter and sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, Brazil nuts, oats, seaweed, wheat, figs, whole grain rice, beans, legumes, onions, cacao, and raisins.
This amino acid comes in three forms: L-phenalynaline (a natural form found in protein) and D-phenalynaline (a form produced by a laboratory), and DL phenalynaline (a combination of both forms). Always eat food-based sources before choosing supplements or enriched food products with a lab-derived version of this amino acid. Phenylalanine is important in the body because it turns into tyrosine once ingested, which is another amino acid that’s needed to make proteins, brain chemicals, and thyroid hormones. Not obtaining enough of this amino acid can result in brain fog, lack of energy, depression, lack of appetite, or memory problems.
Good sources include: spirulina and other seaweed, pumpkin, beans, rice, avocado, almonds, peanuts, quinoa, figs, raisins, leafy greens, most berries, olives, and seeds.
Threonine supports a healthy immune system, heart, liver, and central nervous system health. It also helps maintain a balance of proteins within the body to assist in overall repair, energy, and growth. This amino acid also helps the body’s connective tissues and joints in good health by producing glycine and serine in the body, two essential amino acids needed for healthy bones, skin, hair, and nails. In the liver it helps with fatty acid digestion to prevent fatty acid build-up and liver failure.
The highest sources of this amino acid are: watercress and spirulina (which even exceed meat), pumpkin, leafy greens, hemp seeds, chia seeds, soybeans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and sunflower butter, almonds, avocados, figs, raisins, quinoa, and wheat . Sprouted grains are also excellent sources of this amino acid as well.
Known as the relaxing amino acid, tryptophan is vital to a healthy nervous system and brain health, along with sleep, muscle growth and repair, and overall neurotransmitter function. It’s one of the most prominent amino acids found in turkey, milk, and cheese that cause those foods to make you feel sleepy and relaxed. Tryptophan also converts to serotonin once in the brain, which creates a happy feeling tied to lower levels of stress and depression. It’s best not to consume milk and cheese sources (or turkey) for your tryptophan content whenever you get the chance. Animal foods promote inflammation and there are tons of plant-based sources you can choose instead.
Plant-based sources that include high amounts of tryptophan include: oats and oat bran, seaweed, hemp seeds, chia seeds, spinach, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, parsley, beans, beats, asparagus, mushrooms, all lettuces, leafy greens, beans, avocado, figs, winter squash, celery, peppers, carrots, chickpeas, onions, apples, oranges, bananas, quinoa, lentils, and peas.
Valine is another BCAA needed for optimal muscle growth and repair. It’s also responsible for endurance and the overall maintenance of good muscle health.
High sources of valine include: beans, spinach, legumes, broccoli, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, soy, peanuts, whole grains, figs, avocado, apples, sprouted grains and seeds, blueberries, cranberries, oranges, and apricots.
This amino acid helps transport neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) to the brain and also helps overall muscle health within each muscle cells. It even helps detoxify the body by producing red and white blood cells needed for overall health and immunity. Not obtaining enough histidine can result in arthritis, sexual disfunction, and even deafness. It can also make the body more susceptible to the AIDS virus.
Good plant-based sources of histidine include: rice, wheat, rye, seaweed, beans, legumes, cantaloupe, hemp seeds, chia seeds, buckwheat, potatoes, cauliflower and corn.
How Much Do You Need?
So how much protein do you need? Everyone is different depending on their training goals or overall lifestyle goals. If you’re eating a vegan diet, use this handy online calculator to see how much is enough and to find out the best sources and see the Vegetarian Resource Group for more information on protein in a vegan diet.
Overall, eating a wide variety of whole, plant-based foods will provide you with all the essential amino acids your body needs for optimal growth, repair, and health. Feel free to make your own vegan protein bars, and even skip those store bought protein powders by making your own at home. Getting protein in a vegan diet is versatile and easy, so take advantage of these foods however you can.
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