Everything You Need To Know About Protein vs Amino Acids Suppliments

I was recently asked to review some amino Acid supplements and I got to thinking. Some people may not know what amino acids are, some people may think that they are the same as protein, and some people may not give a shit.

Thus! It is my job to educate the world! Again!

Part 1 -  What is Protein? What are Amino Acids?


Food comes in three categories: carbs, fats, and proteins. It is a macro-nutrient, found in various animal and vegetable foods. In the human body it is needed to build and heal various doodads and whatnots. Most of us think about lunkhead body builders getting jacked with protein, but it also helps strengthen your immune system, make skin and hair healthy, transport vitamins and minerals, and is used to maintain the health of various organs like your damn heart.
(Side note: this is basically a list of common health problems that vegetarians face.)

As protein is digested, your body breaks it down into amino acids.

Amino Acids

There are different types of amino acids used for different jobs, but for our purposes we will hit the two basic categories: nonessential and essential. Nonessential amino acids are produced as needed by a healthy human body while essential amino acids must be obtained through food. A chronic lack of essential amino acids in your diet leads to an increased risk of morbidity. That means you get sick and die.

So, protein is made up of amino acids, but it would be inaccurate to think that protein is amino acids. Similar to the difference between "an orange has vitamin C" and "an orange is vitamin C."

Part 2 - Do I Need To Take A Protein Or Amino Acid Supplement For My Health?

Here's my new favorite statistic. 75% of Americans will be overweight and 41% will be obese by the end of 2015. Overweight and obese Americans of all ages are eating a deficit of up to 93% in various required vitamins and nutrients. Because of this, most everyone should consider a basic 1-A-Day vitamin, but what about protein or amino acids?

If you are vegetarian or vegan, you almost certainly have impacted your health negatively due to a lack of protein. Do not start a vegetarian or vegan diet without having a serious discussion with a dietitian. You can be a perfectly healthy non-meat eater, but if you wing it you will get diseases. And guess what? If you haven't at some point made a food chart planning out exactly how you are getting all of your essential vitamins and nutrients, you are winging it.

Best case scenario for all people: eat an appropriate portion of high quality protein at each meal to avoid protein related health problems. If you will not be eating high quality portion appropriate real protein three times a day, you should consider a supplement.

Part 3 - Should I Choose A Protein Or An Amino Acids Supplement?

It depends. Let's compare protein powder mixed in a glass of water with amino acids powder mixed in the same amount of water. For this example, we will assume that you are interested in basic health.

You drink the protein

Because protein needs to be broken down before your body can use it, the digestion process begins. Your gut springs into action, churning away. Resources (like blood) are rerouted to aid digestion, your metabolism goes up a bit, and a modest bit of energy is expended. Once the protein is broken down, the amino acids are taken away into your body to work.

You drink the amino acids

Because amino acids are already in a usable form, the digestive process is not like that of protein. Once in your gut, they are quickly absorbed into the blood stream and shuttled away for use.

So, let's say that one of your goals is to burn excess body fat. Protein requires digestion, thus more energy, and maybe tweaking your metabolism a bit will matter. And, although it is minimal in powder form, protein also has a satiating effect, meaning that it can make you feel full and less hungry if added to a smoothie. That's good.

However, because it requires digestion, protein may disturb sleep (like eating real food before bed) if eaten at night, it can interfere with a fasted state, and psychologically, you might say "Well, I had some protein powder so maybe I can skip eating real food." You do need to eat real food.

You do not need both protein and amino acids. If you are eating a meal of high quality, portion appropriate protein, you do not need to supplement at that time.

But now let's say your goal is to build some muscle through exercise and you're wondering about the differences between supplementing before, during, or after a workout.

Dude, you're hardcore.

There are two parts to this. (Damn, there are two parts to everything.)

Post-Workout Window

You might have heard that after working out, you have about 45 minutes to eat something or something will happen or won't happen or something. Basically, after a strength workout your muscles are "open" (they're not really open, but go with me on this). If you get carbs in your system within 45 minutes, you will restore the glycogen levels in your muscles, thus combating complete exhaustion and restoring some functional energy. This is good. You should try it. It is unrelated to protein, but sometimes confused with relating to it.

Timing Probably Doesn't Matter

Does it make a difference if you supplement protein or amino acids before, during, or after a workout? Maybe. We don't know for sure. Some studies say yes, some say no. Some people argue that the speed of absorption matters or doesn't matter. At this time, there is no conclusive compelling evidence one way or the other. That said, we do agree that protein builds muscle, so you should get some in sometime.

I would say experiment.

For me, eating a (generally) high quality, thought through diet, I never noticed a difference with protein powder regardless of the timing of my consumption. However, when I started taking amino acids capsules before bed and in the morning combined with Bulletproof Coffee and Intermittent Fasting, I noticed a big difference (but damn, that's a big topic worthy of its own article). For you, maybe it's something different. We are unique snowflakes, after all.

Part 4 - What About Health Problems Caused By Too Much Protein?

This part of the conversation really reminds me of climate change deniers, pro-calorie counters, and anti-immunization people. Somewhere in the middle of the original logic is a nugget of a real concern, but those groups all went in the direction of faith over science in a scientific field. Anti-protein people have a nugget of a real concern, but the conversation has been shaped by a few faith-based, anti-science zealots. A little bit of science in the wrong brain leads to big damage.

Here's what we know.

*First caveat: this information applies to "healthy" people. If you have kidney or liver disease, diabetes, hypertension, or similar conditions, this likely does not apply to you in the exact way described.

  • Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) say that an adult male should eat about 56 grams of protein a day and an adult female should eat 46 grams.
  • The RDA is kind of bullshit. 
*Second caveat: NIH says: "Although the reference values are based on data, the data are often scanty or drawn from studies that had limitations in addressing the question." Translation: we're doing the best we can, for Christ's sake!

In 2005, The Institute of Medicine of The  National Academies published a massive 1,331 page report titled Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. It's a pretty comprehensive report attempting to assemble all of the quality scientific information available on, well, how much of that stuff we need to function.

Let me pull out three quotes for our purposes. Again, 1) this is some of the most current, well researched data on the subject of risk from high-protein intake and 2) in this report, protein is differentiated from fat.

Pg 692. "There is little scientific literature on the effects of consuming very high protein diets..."
Whoa! As of 2005 there wasn't much quality science on the effects of a high protein diet? Okay...

pg 695 "...the highest reported protein intake (in the study was) 2.7 g/kg/d, for the reference 70 kg-man."
Translation: a 154lb man 19-30yrs old ate 190g of protein a day.
190g of protein = 30 eggs or 6 chicken breasts or 25oz of steak or 8 cups of Quinoa. Which probably caused kidney failure, right?

pg 695 (lower on the page)"The risk of adverse effects resulting from excess intakes of protein from foods appears to be very low at the highest intake noted above."
Translation: that guy mentioned above showed no health effects due to the large amount of protein he ate.

*Third caveat. The takeaway is not that you should triple your protein intake. Instead, be aware that there is a huge difference between the 46-56 grams of protein minimum requirement to avoid disease and the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of protein before you get sick. Plus, dude, you gotta eat vegetables.

Part 5 - Conclusion

How many damn words did I just write? This was supposed to be brief!

Do you need a supplement? Should it be protein or amino acids? When should I take them? Well, these are not easy one size fits all questions. We are all different. Our bodies, goals, and lifestyles will make your answer different from mine.

That said, here are my final recommendations.

First, eat a lot of vegetables and frequent, portion appropriate, high quality protein from real food.

Second, you could probably benefit from some degree of protein/amino acids supplementation.

Third, it is easier for you to eat too little protein and get sick then it is to eat too much protein and get sick.

Fourth, if you diet is not solid, you may benefit from a protein supplement as those have "a little bit of everything" (not really, but go with it). If your diet is solid (chances are, yours isn't, but you think it is) you may still not get enough of specific essential  amino acids. In that case, you may benefit more from amino acids supplements as they double down on the essential bits you are likely missing.

Fifth, the timing of a protein/amino acids supplement to maximize your workout probably doesn't matter, but the science isn't conclusive yet.

Sixth, if the timing does matter, taking protein vs amino acids is also inconclusive for the best results.

Seventh, the exception with timing and type mattering seems to be in regards to intermittent fasting, which I will have to write about later.

All of that should be actionable and easy enough to grock. If you really want to learn everything about protein vs amino acids, go get a PhD.

photo credit: Arya Ziai via photopin cc
photo credit: las - initially via photopin cc
photo credit: petechons via photopin cc
photo credit: brentdanley via photopin cc
photo credit: Sixth Lie via photopin cc