Protein vs Amino Acids: What is the Difference?

What Is Protein?

Protein is a macronutrient - a nutrient required in large quantity and needed to maintain body functions. The proteins we consume as part of our diet are broken down in the body into its building blocks called amino acids. In other words, proteins are like a beaded necklace. The beads (amino acids) are connected together by a string (bond), which forms a long chain (protein). Once broken down in the body, amino acids are used for growth and repair of tissues, making enzymes and hormones, supporting immune function, as an energy source, and as base materials in the production of other compounds needed by the body.

There are 20 amino acids needed by humans. Of the 20 that are necessary for life, 9 are considered essential. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed through the diet. Proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids are considered “complete” proteins, whereas, proteins that do not contain all nine essential acids are considered “incomplete”.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

According to the Institute of Medicine, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein for men and women age 19 and older is 10-35% of total calories. These percentages provide a range broad enough to cover the macronutrient needs of most active individuals. However, specific carbohydrate and protein recommendations are also typically made based on a g/kg body weight formula. This range is 1.2 to 1.8 g/kg body weight for protein depending on the level of physical activity.

Benefit of Amino Acid Supplements

For most adults, protein needs can be met through a balanced diet. However, for special populations such as athletes, the elderly, or those with specific dietary needs it may not be possible to meet the protein need. That being said, amino acid supplements provide an opportunity to meet this need.

In addition, amino acids in a supplement are different from amino acids in food because they are already broken down. Since they are already separated from each other, they are absorbed quickly and all at once, giving the body a small amount of time to use them. In conclusion, this is an important consideration for athletes that are looking to maximize the benefit of their protein intake.

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Manore MM (2005). Exercise and the Institute of Medicine recommendations for nutrition. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2005 Aug;4(4):193-8.
Wolfe R, Cifelli A, Kostas G, and Kim I (2017). Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults: Interpretation and Application of the Recommended Dietary Allowance Compared with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range. Adv Nutr. 2017 Mar; 8(2): 266–275.


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