Protein is made up of smaller molecules called amino acids. Your body needs protein, as it is an essential element in every type of tissue and organ, and is needed to create hormones and enzymes as well. There are 20 types of amino acid in protein. Your body can produce 10 types of amino acids on its but, but the other 10, called essential amino acids, must be obtained from your diet.
The University of Arizona Biology Project lists the 10 essential amino acids as arginine, histadine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Though vegetarian children need to receive arginine through dietary sources, adults do not require this particular amino acid. Plants are capable of creating all of these amino acids, but your body does not possess the enzymes needed to create them.
Animal-based foods, such as meat, fish and poultry, provide all of the essential amino acids, and thus are considered complete proteins. If you are a vegetarian, you can include animal-based foods in your diet, such as cheese, eggs and milk, and can obtain all of the essential amino acids through these foods. Vegans can satisfy their bodies’ protein requirements by consuming a variety of foods containing incomplete proteins. Foods such as beans, seeds, legumes and vegetables contain a variety of amino acids and, when consumed as part of a healthy diet, provide adequate protein content, according to the Institute of Medicine. Soy products offer a vegan-friendly option to consume complete protein, and quinoa is a complete protein option as well.
It is important for you to consume all of the essential amino acids, because a deficiency in any of them can compromise the integrity of structures in your body that depend on protein. Other macronutrients such as fat and starch can be stored by your body for later use but, unlike these, protein is not stored, so amino acids must be consumed daily to avoid deterioration of body tissues. If you don't get enough amino acids in your diet, your body will start tapping into your muscle tissue as a source of essential amino acids, reducing your muscle mass.
If you're like most adults, you'll need two or three servings of protein daily to meet your nutritional needs, according to MedlinePlus. Serving sizes that meet these requirements for vegans include a half-cup of cooked beans or two tablespoons of peanut butter. Vegetarians who include eggs and dairy products in their diets can obtain a serving of all the essential amino acids by consuming one egg or one ounce of cheese.
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