What Does Essential Mean in Regard to Nutrients & Amino Acids?

High-quality protein foods contain all the essential amino acids.
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When talking about nutrients such as amino acids, “essential” means your body can’t make it, and you have to get it the old-fashioned way: from food. Other essential nutrients include vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fats. Eating a variety of nutritious foods will ensure you get all the essential nutrients your body needs to function well.

Essential Amino Acids

    Think of the 20 existing amino acids as building blocks. When you combine them, they make a protein that is then used for growth, digestion, muscle and tissue repair and many other functions. Your body can make 10 non-essential amino acids, but the other half must come from the food you eat. The 10 essential amino acids include arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Only children require arginine, so some sources list nine essential amino acids.


    Protein foods contain all the essential amino acids, and most Americans get plenty -- often, too much -- protein in their diets. Complete protein comes from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. These foods contain all the essential amino acids. A few plant-based foods, including soy and quinoa, also contain all the essential amino acids and are considered complete proteins; however, most plant-based protein foods are missing some of the essential amino acids and are known as incomplete proteins. These include beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. If you eat a combination of incomplete proteins, they add up to a complete protein and you can still get all the amino acids in your diet.


    Some athletes might take amino acid supplements to help their muscles recover after intense workouts, but unless you’re trying out for a professional sports team or working out to the be an Olympic champion, you probably don’t need a supplement. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet including sources of high-quality protein such as lean meats, low-fat dairy, legumes and whole grains should provide all the essential amino acids you need.

Other Essential Nutrients

    Iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamins A through K and the plethora of other nutrients are all considered essential. You could spend hours calculating the nutrient content of each food you put in your mouth to make sure you are meeting the RDAs, but an easier way to ensure you get all the essential nutrients your body needs is to eat a variety of nutritious foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed Choose My Plate to explain what and how much of each food group you need every day to meet your individual nutrition requirements. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and divide the other half between whole grains and protein foods. Add a couple of servings of dairy throughout the day and you should be the picture of health.

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