amino acids and the vegetarian diet

Amino Acids And The Vegetarian Diet

amino acids and the vegetarian diet

Amino Acids

Amino acids.


Not a subject to grab your attention on the commute to work.

But as you’re here I’m assuming you had a question about the vegetarian diet and sources of amino acids.

Perhaps you have a child who wants to become vegetarian and you worry about possible health concerns?

Concerns about vegetarianism/veganism

A quick search of the internet to find out what concerns people have about vegetarianism and veganism was revealing.

Parents with children who want to exclude animal products from their diet had concerns about brain health, growth, and energy levels.

vegetarian child, health concerns for a vegetarian child

I completely understand those concerns

Some parents asked if they should accommodate their children’s vegetarian dietary preferences if they had concerns about their children’s health.

For any parent, coping with their child’s desire to take animal products out of their diet can be scary.

How do you support their wishes and protect their health?

And what about preparing meals that the whole family will enjoy when one person at the table doesn’t eat what everyone else is having?

When one member of the family wants to remove foods from their diet, it’s a hassle.

You’ll probably build up the hassle factor in your mind if you aren’t sure that a vegetarian diet is going to be healthy and enjoyable.

We all want an easy life right? Especially at family mealtimes.

Cooking different meals for family members is a pain

I well remember mealtimes when I was growing up. Being daughter number 4 of 5 girls in a working class family I quickly learned that the food put in front of me was the food I would eat.

No histrionics. No childish meltdowns about not wanting the food on my plate. My mother’s choice of meal to serve was not open to debate.

As a child who struggled with eating meat, and I mean struggled as I talk about in this post, it was no joke.

So it was only when I left home to move into my first apartment that I got to remove the hated meat products from my diet.

My mother knew nothing about amino acids

My mother didn’t have any idea what an amino acid was. It’s not that she’s stupid.

I’m talking about a time more than 50 years ago (scary but true) and food was fuel. No more, no less.

The nutritional value of food wasn’t the major consideration. But as takeaways and processed ready meals were a thing of the future, there wasn’t really a problem.

Me not wanting to eat meat was just me being picky about my food.


So each meal was constructed around the meat choice for the day, with some vegetables added.

So much has changed

Today, we’re way more aware of the health benefits of certain food choices.

With that knowledge comes an awareness of the balanced diet for health. As a result, removing food groups from our diets can cause concern.

This is where amino acids may come into play

Not just amino acids, of course. To search for that topic in particular means, you believe they’re essential to health and only obtained from animal sources.

One search returned this question;

Could vegetarianism/veganism cause brain damage by depriving children of the building blocks for their brain health? Which are amino acids and fatty acids that can only come from meat?

Fatty acids are touched upon in this post on vegetarian nutrition.

We’ll cover fatty acids in the next post.

So, what are amino acids? And what role do they play?

The body needs 20 different amino acids to maintain good health and normal functioning.

Your body must obtain nine of these amino acids, the essential amino acids, through food.

Good dietary sources for those nine amino acids include meat, eggs, tofu, soy, buckwheat, quinoa, and dairy.

What are amino acids?

Amino acids are compounds that combine to make proteins.

When you eat a food that contains protein, your digestive system breaks the protein down into amino acids. Your body then combines the amino acids in various ways to carry out bodily functions.

Pretty amazing huh?

A healthy body can manufacture the other 11 amino acids, so these do not usually need to enter the body through the diet.

We’ll assume that you fall into the category of having a healthy body.

That leaves 9 amino acids that you get from food. These 9 are also classified as essential amino acids. And as we know, you get those from foods high in protein.

It’s true to say that good sources of essential amino acids are animal proteins like meat, eggs and poultry.

In fact, eggs are considered to be a complete source of essential amino acids.

That’s something to consider if a vegan diet that eliminates all animal foods is your aim, as you will be excluding eggs from your diet.

children and protein

Children have additional amino acid requirements

Children’s bodies can’t make several other amino acids.

That is a specific subject and if you have concerns, then try this link to the British Nutrition Foundation for more detailed information.

Amino acids build muscles, cause chemical reactions in the body, transport nutrients, prevent illness, and carry out other functions.

Amino acid deficiency can result in decreased immunity, digestive problems, depression, fertility issues, lower mental alertness, slowed growth in children, and many other health issues.

It’s no wonder that parents worry that their child wants to become vegetarian or vegan.

Equipping yourself with the knowledge you need to help protect your child’s health is a great way to deal with that concern.

Each of the essential amino acids plays a different role in the body.

The 9 essential amino acids you get from food

1 Lysine

Lysine plays a vital role in building muscle, maintaining bone strength, aiding recovery from injury or surgery, and regulating hormones, antibodies, and enzymes. It may also have antiviral effects.

2 Histidine

Histidine facilitates growth, the creation of blood cells, and tissue repair. It also helps maintain the special protective covering over nerve cells, which is called the myelin sheath.

The body metabolizes histidine into histamine, which is crucial for immunity, reproductive health, and digestion.

3 Threonine

Threonine is necessary for healthy skin and teeth. It is a component in tooth enamel, collagen, and elastin. It helps aid fat metabolism and may be beneficial for people with indigestion, anxiety, and mild depression.

4 Methionine

Methionine and the nonessential amino acid cysteine play a role in the health and flexibility of skin and hair. Methionine also helps keep nails strong. It aids the proper absorption of selenium and zinc and the removal of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury.

5 Valine

Valine is essential for mental focus, muscle coordination, and emotional calm.

6 Isoleucine

Isoleucine helps with wound healing, immunity, blood sugar regulation, and hormone production. It is primarily present in muscle tissue and regulates energy levels.

7 Leucine

Leucine helps regulate blood sugar levels and aids the growth and repair of muscle and bone. It is also necessary for wound healing and the production of growth hormone.

8 Phenylalanine

Phenylalanine helps the body use other amino acids as well as proteins and enzymes. The body converts phenylalanine to tyrosine, which is necessary for specific brain functions

9 Tryptophan

Tryptophan is necessary for proper growth in infants and is a precursor of serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, mood, and pain. Melatonin also regulates sleep.

Source: Heatlhline

Essential amino acids and exercise

Many studies show that low levels of protein and essential amino acids affect muscle strength and exercise performance.

According to a 2014 study, not getting enough essential amino acids may cause lower muscle mass in older adults.

An additional study shows that amino acid supplements can help athletes recover after exercise.

foods with essential amino acids

source of protein, source of amino acids, vegetarian protein, vegetarian amino acids

Because foods high in protein are your main source of amino acids, your diet should contain foods high in protein.

Doctors once believed that people had to eat foods that provided all nine essential amino acids in one meal.

Unless an individual was eating meat, eggs, dairy, tofu, or other food with all the essential amino acids, it was thought necessary to combine two or more plant foods containing all nine.

That’s why vegetarian diets were often made by combining foods such as rice and beans.

Today, however, that recommendation has changed.

People who eat vegetarian or vegan diets can get their essential amino acids from various plant foods throughout the day.

They and don’t necessarily have to eat them all together at one meal.

Incorporating essential amino acids into your diet

Although it’s possible to be deficient in essential amino acids, most people can obtain enough of them by eating a diet that includes protein.

The foods in the following list are the most common sources of essential amino acids:

  • Lysine is in meat, eggs, soy, black beans, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds.
  • Meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and whole grains contain large amounts of histidine.
  • Cottage cheese and wheat germ contain high quantities of threonine.
  • Methionine is in eggs, grains, nuts, and seeds.
  • Valine is in soy, cheese, peanuts, mushrooms, whole grains, and vegetables.
  • Isoleucine is plentiful in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
  • Dairy, soy, beans, and legumes are sources of leucine.
  • Phenylalanine is in dairy, meat, poultry, soy, fish, beans, and nuts.
  • Tryptophan is in most high-protein foods, including wheat germ, cottage cheese, chicken, and turkey.

These are just a few examples of foods that are rich in essential amino acids because they are high in protein.

All foods that contain protein, whether plant-based or animal-based, will contain at least some of the essential amino acids.


Consuming essential amino acids is crucial for good health.

Eating a variety of foods that contain protein each day is the best way for people to ensure that they are getting adequate amounts of essential amino acids.

With today’s modern diet and access to a wide variety of foods, a deficiency is rare for people who are generally in good health.

Supplements are a whole other subject. Always talk to a doctor before using supplements.

Sources of further information

For a list of 13 Nearly Complete Protein Sources for Vegans try this article on Healthline.

The Vegetarian Society provides another great source of information. The following is taken from their website.

Note: the initial reference to eight essential amino acids is different to the nine listed above. However, the information reproduced below focuses on two essential amino acids that you should consider in any vegetarian diet; lysine and methionine.

Protein combining

Of the eight essential amino acids two – lysine and methionine are given special attention in vegetarian diets. This is because compared with foods of animal origin such as eggs, milk and cheese various food groups of vegetable origin have an imbalance of either lysine or methionine. The food groups mainly in question are; cereals, such as wheat, oats and rice, and legumes; beans, peas and lentils.  Wheat and rice proteins are comparatively low in lysine but better sources of methionine whereas beans and peas are relatively high in lysine yet in lower methionine. This has naturally led to the idea of cereals and legumes as ‘complementary’ proteins. In practice, this means that meals that combine for example beans and rice or houmous and bread will provide a biologically ‘complete’ protein intake.   It was thought until relatively recently that, as the body does not readily store amino acids it was essential for vegetarians to combine ‘complementary proteins’ at each meal. There has been some debate over this which has concluded that this isn’t strictly necessary, however, it still has some advantages and seems a sensible way to approach a varied and complete diet.

Vegetarian society

Back to fatty acids

sources of fatty acids, omega 3 and 6 foods, vegetarian source of omega

Foods high in fatty acids. See our post on Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids in the vegetarian diet.

How to become a vegetarian by someone who is

Exploding the myth about vegetarian nutrition

Reasons to become vegetarian

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