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Amino Acids vs. Protein: Why Both Are Important For Optimal Health

by Mara Welty December 03, 2023 7 min read

 amino acids vs protein

On your journey to wellness, you’ve likely stumbled upon nutrition content that mentioned proteins and amino acids, or maybe you remember them from high school biology class. But what’s the difference between amino acids vs protein?

In short, amino acids are the components of proteins. For this reason, you need both to maintain key bodily functions. 

However, the protein vs amino acid debate can be complex. Understanding the difference will help you make the best possible nutrition decisions for your wellness goals. So, let’s explore the crucial role of both proteins and amino acids, as well as tips for incorporating them into your daily life.

What Are Proteins?

Without proteins, the human body couldn’t function. Some of the most important aspects of proteins to understand are: 

  • Proteins are complex – Proteins are compounds made from long chains of amino acids — smaller compounds with their own key roles in human biology.
  • Proteins are macronutrients – Proteins are one of three macronutrients — the building blocks of human nutrition. The other two “macros” are carbohydrates and fats.
  • Proteins are prolific – Scientists estimate that there are thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of proteins functioning inside the human body at any given time. While researchers haven’t identified every protein yet, many have been thoroughly studied. 

Proteins are both nutritional and biological components. While your body makes many of the proteins you need, it still relies on the proteins you get from food.

What Role Do Proteins Play in the Body?

Proteins are complex compounds that:

  • Help build cells and tissues
  • Make up cells and tissues
  • Regulate tissue and organ function
  • Transmit signals throughout the body

Two of the most common types of proteins are:

  • Antibodies – Antibodies are key immune system components. They bind to harmful substances like viruses to eradicate sickness and help your body maintain normal operations.
  • Enzymes – Chemical reactions in all of your body’s cells simply couldn’t happen without enzymes. For everything from cellular energy production to digestion, enzymes are critical to human biology. 

Other proteins play structural roles, send messages between cells and even transport atoms and small molecules throughout the body. 

From a protein digestion standpoint, the proteins we eat are broken down into peptides (smaller chains of amino acids). These peptides then travel throughout the body, supporting a wide variety of functions.

What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Protein?

Nutrition experts’ Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is:

  • 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or
  • 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight

Here’s a quick chart breaking down the RDA for some body weights:

Body Weight (in pounds) RDA of protein (in grams)
120 44
160 58
200 72
240 87

Primarily, protein deficits cause a decrease in muscle mass. To understand why, we need to break down how protein relates to muscle generation:

  1. Throughout the day, muscle tissue develops small tears from exertion.
  2. Muscles are made of amino acids, which come from the proteins we eat.
  3. After proteins are digested into peptides (short amino acid chains), they move through the body to the muscles that need to be rebuilt.
  4. Amino acids bind to the muscles, repairing the small tears and restoring the muscle’s strength. This process is known as muscle protein synthesis, a critical biological process where muscle fibers are repaired and grown, especially after a workout or physical activity.

If your body can’t completely replace the amino acids that your muscles lost when they tore, your muscles can’t return to their full strength. Over time, your muscle mass will continue to decrease if your protein deficit continues.

What Are Amino Acids?

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Since the human body wouldn’t exist without proteins, the same can be said for amino acids. Both are critical compounds in human biology. 

While your body makes hundreds of amino acids, it only needs 20 to function correctly. These 20 amino acids are broken into three main categories:

  • Essential amino acids – There are nine essential amino acids that you must get from food. Your body can’t make them on its own.
  • Nonessential amino acids – Despite their name, nonessential amino acids are required for human functioning. However, you don’t have to get them in your diet: your body can make these on its own.
  • Conditionally essential amino acids – Your body only makes these amino acids under specific biological conditions, like when you’re sick or stressed.
What Role Do Amino Acids Play in the Body?

If you’ve spent any time reading lists of protein powder ingredients, you may have heard of some amino acid supplements like:

  • Leucine – Along with providing key building blocks for muscle repair and growth, leucine may also help increase lean body mass and heal skin and bones.
  • Lysine – Lysine contributes to both antibody production in the immune system and the production of carnitine. Carnitine helps your body burn fatty acids for energy and modulate cholesterol.
  • Threonine – Threonine plays multiple roles in the body. It contributes to the immune system, supports fat metabolism and impacts collagen production. If you’ve ever supplemented with unflavored collagen peptides, you may have already encountered threonine.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; each of the 20 amino acids your body needs has one or more critical functions.

What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Amino Acids?

If you’re using appetite control support supplements or trying to lose weight, you might be operating at a caloric deficit. And, if you don’t track your protein intake carefully, you could be operating at an amino acid deficit, too.

Let’s take a look at health experts’ RDAs for each of the essential amino acids:

Essential amino acid RDA (in milligrams)
Histidine 14
Isoleucine 19
Leucine 42
Lysine 38
Methionine 19
Phenylalanine 33
Threonine 20
Tryptophan 5
Valine 24

If you’re not getting enough amino acids, you’re likely not getting enough protein. This means you may observe the same results as you would with a protein deficiency — gradually reduced muscle mass. Since your body needs amino acids to rebuild damaged muscles, maintain function and build new muscle, meeting your daily protein RDA is key.

Comparing Protein vs. Amino Acids

To recap, let’s compare amino acids vs. proteins:

  • Amino acids are a component of proteins. So, when you eat protein, you’re also consuming amino acids. 
  • Your body can make many amino acids and proteins on its own, but there are some proteins and amino acids that you can only get through food.
  • Both proteins and amino acids are key to muscle recovery, maintenance and growth. 

At the end of the day, it’s important to consider both amino acids and protein as you structure your diet around your wellness goals. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, meeting your daily protein RDA is crucial for maintaining everyday strength and a healthy lifestyle. 

Tips for Incorporating Protein and Amino Acids Into Your Diet

If you’re using a weight loss kit, you might have to pay extra attention to your protein intake to make sure you’re meeting your goals. Let’s explore two methods for how to eat more protein.

Eat A Varied, Nutritious Diet

Health experts recommend eating nutrient-dense, diverse foods as a primary method for getting the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your body needs to thrive. In fact, nutrition researchers have found that getting nutrients from food sources may be preferable to using a protein supplement and/or vitamins. 

This is particularly true for amino acids. Since the RDAs for each of the essential amino acids (the ones you have to get from food) are relatively small, the easiest way to achieve these RDAs is by eating complete proteins

Complete proteins include all nine essential amino acids. Some high-quality complete protein sources are:

  • Lean red meats
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Fish and seafood
  • Whole soy products, including miso, tempeh and tofu 
Support Your Nutrition with Supplements

You might consider adding protein supplements to your diet if:

  • You’re eating a restricted diet – If you have dietary restrictions, live a meat-free lifestyle or you’re using weight loss support tools, you might have limited access to proteins (complete or otherwise). Adding a supplement can help you meet your RDA without sacrificing your comfort, values or wellness goals.
  • You’re too busy to focus on macros – If you work a physically demanding job, raise children or simply have a busy lifestyle, you might not have time to make three, protein-rich meals and snacks from scratch every day. With protein supplements, meeting your macros is as simple as mixing up a shake.
  • You have big goals – If your goal is muscle growth, your daily protein goals might be significantly higher than your weight-based RDA. In these cases, you simply might not be hungry enough to meet your large protein threshold. Using supplements is a great way to get over the finish line without eating until you’re uncomfortably full. 

Crush Your Nutrition Goals with INVIGOR8

What’s the difference between amino acids vs. proteins? Amino acids are a building block of proteins, so you need both to maintain muscle mass and function. 

If you’re trying to meet your RDA or build muscle with high-quality protein, turn to INVIGOR8. We offer numerous protein-rich products that can help you reach your RDA and support your wellness goals, like our delicious All-in-One Superfood Shake, which features eight nutritional complexes and 20 grams of whey protein powder. 

Check out our entire product line today to start boosting your protein and amino acid intake. For additional information on how to maximize the impact of your supplementation, you can also explore our guide on how to use protein powder to find your balance.

 

Sources:

  1. Medline Plus. What Are Proteins and What Do They Do?
  2. Harvard University. Protein
  3. Medical News Today. How Much Protein Do You Need to Build Muscle?
  4. Harvard University. How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?
  5. University of Rochester Medical Center. Leucine
  6. Mount Sinai. Lysine
  7. American Chemical Society. Threonine
  8. Cleveland Clinic. Amino Acids
  9. Medline Plus. Amino Acids
  10. Harvard University. Best Source of Vitamins? Your Plate, Not Your Medicine Cabinet
  11. Cleveland Clinic. What Are Complete Proteins?

 

About the Author

 Mara Welty
Mara Welty

Mara Welty is a copywriter who specializes in health, wellness and CBD topics. With a background in journalism, she aims to deliver engaging, research-based content that builds trust and engages readers through informative storytelling.

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