Why Amino Acids Are the Building Blocks of Life, with Angelo Keely
In this episode, we discuss:
- What amino acids are and why they’re important
- The role that amino acids play in muscle protein synthesis
- The importance of muscle protein synthesis in recovery, metabolism, and aging
- How to get an adequate amount of protein and essential amino acids
- Safety and protein intake
- What to look for in an amino acid supplement and why Kion is unique
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, we’re going to talk all about amino acids.
I realized I’ve never done a show on this topic or even written an article about them. But I use amino acids regularly to support my performance and recovery, and I have a long history of using them, which I’ll talk a little bit about in the show. The more research I’ve done, the more I’ve worked with patients, and the older I get, the more important they have become as a tool for improving muscle mass [and] muscle protein synthesis, which in turn relates to our overall health in several ways that I think most people aren’t aware of. So I’m excited to dive into that on this show. And as a way of extending our longevity and health span.
One of the most common causes of age-related frailty and falls, which in turn is one of the highest causes of death in the elderly, is sarcopenia, or a decrease in muscle mass. So preserving our muscle mass as we age is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that we age gracefully, can continue to participate in all the activities that we want to as we get older, and live a really rich, rewarding, and fulfilling life all the way until the end. Most people I’ve worked with, as they get older, are not paying enough attention to this, and, along with osteoporosis and a decline in bone density, [it] can contribute to poor quality of life as we age.
This is a really exciting topic for me, and I’ve invited Angelo Keely to discuss it. He’s an expert in amino acids and the founder of Kion, which is a functional food company that has an incredible amino acid formula, [which] I think is the best on the market [and] that I take myself. We have a really fascinating discussion about the role that amino acids play in health and how we can leverage them to live our best possible life. I hope you enjoy the discussion. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Angelo, welcome to the show. It’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Angelo Keely: Thanks for having me, Chris. It’s an honor.
Chris Kresser: I have a long history with amino acids, actually. [When] I was in high school, I was really into basketball, and we had a coach who had been one of the college coaches on the USC basketball program. So he brought a college-level program to our high school. We had intense weight training, and I brought a cooler to school with a huge amount of food every day, and we watched films of other teams. It was really serious, and the trainer we worked with got me into amino acids because I was lifting weights a lot, and I wanted to put on muscle. They were, even back then, a big part of my regimen and training. Then, for whatever reason, in my 20s and 30s, I forgot about them [and] wasn’t using them as much.
Now living in Utah and skiing and hiking, mountain biking, doing pretty intense and rigorous activities, and being almost 48 years old, I’ve rediscovered amino acids, [and] let me tell you. [And it’s] thanks to Kion. The other day, I went touring ski terrain. [I] did several thousand feet of vertical, and I wasn’t even sore at the end of that day. [Whereas] all my friends [were] complaining about how sore they [were] for the next [few] days. I think amino acids have been a big part of that for me, really helping me perform at a high level and, most importantly, for me, as I get older, recover quickly so I can get back out there and do it again. What are amino acids for people who are not familiar with them? And why do they help me so much?
What Amino Acids Are and Why They’re Important
Angelo Keely: First of all, what a cool opportunity to have that level of attention and coaching in high school. I’m sure it was intense. Maybe you were like, “Whoa, do we need this much?” But what a cool opportunity. I think you spoke so well to how applicable amino acids can be for different stages of life, which is one of the most unique things about them as a dietary supplement.
But what are amino acids? I’ll get back to your question. I think most people are familiar. There [are] three main macronutrients that we consume in our diet. Those are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. You can count alcohol, I guess, if you want.
Chris Kresser: Some do.
Angelo Keely: The proteins that we eat are made up of amino acids. There are chains of molecules called amino acids that build proteins. But it’s not just the proteins that we eat; it’s also all the proteins in our body. Many people are familiar with the basic line that 70 percent of your body is water, or 60 percent. I think it’s actually between 55 and 60 percent for adults. Of the remaining part of your body that’s solid mass, there [are] some mineral components, etc. But most of it is made up of proteins. Thousands and thousands of different proteins. Those can be actual muscle, those can be other forms of tissue, organs, [or] enzymes, [and] they take many different forms throughout the body. The building blocks of all those proteins, whether they’re a protein that we eat as a food or the proteins that make up our body and run our body, [are] all built up from these chains of amino acids. [That’s] kind of [a] high-level .
Chris Kresser: I think it’s hard because we have a diverse audience, everyone from scientists and medical professionals down to lay people. So it’s always a little hard even for me to know how deep to go on this stuff. But I think that was a great summary. And I think people have heard discussions of amino acids from me on this podcast and also the several appearances I’ve had on the Joe Rogan [Experience] where we’ve talked about protein quality. Of course, protein quality is the function of [the] amino acid profile and bioavailability. Those are the two main factors that we use to judge protein quality. Think about protein being the scaffolding of the body, and basically, proteins run the show. Anything that happens in the body is the result of a protein at some point, because genes encode for proteins, and then proteins are really responsible for a lot of the major biochemical functions in the body.
Then if you break down protein further, it’s a bunch of amino acids. So you start to understand, if you look at it that way, how absolutely fundamental amino acids are to the function of the body. Not just muscle health and recovery, like we were talking about, but pretty much all aspects of biochemical and physiologic function. Which is why protein quality is such a big deal and why it’s so important that we get the amino acids that we need to support our activity level.
Angelo Keely: I think you could just as easily, instead of saying amino acids are the building blocks of protein, [say] they’re really the building blocks of life. Fundamentally, our existence and our ability to manifest as living creatures is based on proteins and the amino acids that string together to form them. You’re 100 percent right in terms of both the quality of the proteins by how much we can digest them, as well as the amino acid profile. I think that leads into the way that our bodies function. Our bodies can’t just make all these amino acids [and] can’t just create all these proteins. We have to consume some of them. I think you’ve spoken pretty extensively about this in terms of [the] qualities of protein and why certain proteins are better than others. But it really does come down to essential amino acids. While many forms of great complete protein, forms of animal protein, for example, like steak, have a lot of essential amino acids, about half of them [are] essential amino acids. The other half is the non-essential amino acids. And the main difference between this idea of essential and non-essential [amino acids] is that our body cannot synthesize the essential ones. The essential ones we must eat.
Luckily, [with] a lot of the food that we eat, like steak, you’re getting the essential and you’re getting the non-essential. [But] if we did not get any of the non-essential amino acids from that piece of steak, our body would be able to produce them internally within the body. You’d be able to make those additional amino acids. And just for reference, of dietary amino acids that form protein in our body, there [are] 20. There [are] over 300 amino acids in nature, etc., [and] there [are] many more amino acids within our body, but [of] the ones that form the proteins in our body, there [are] 20, and nine of those we really need to eat. That’s when you get into, “What’s a complete protein, [and] what’s the quality of this protein based [on] the profile?” It’s really about those nine essential [amino acids].
Chris Kresser: Listeners will be familiar with this concept of essential. We also use it when it comes to vitamins and minerals. They’re vitamins A, D, C, K, K2, [and] E, and minerals like iron, magnesium, [and] calcium. Those are all essential nutrients, which means in the same context that Angelo just described, [they’re] not just really important; [there’s] a specific scientific meaning here, which is that the body can’t make them on its own and we have to get them from some outside source, which could be food, could be supplements, [or] could be a combination of both.
The Role That Amino Acids Play in Muscle Protein Synthesis
So we have these nine essential amino acids. Let’s talk a little bit about the specific role that amino acids play in muscle. We know that muscle protein synthesis depends on all 20 of the amino acids, but the essential amino acids play a disproportionate role. This is why a lot of people might be familiar with essential amino acids from GNC or if they have had any experience in weightlifting or in that world that they’ve probably come across essential amino acids in that context because they do play a very powerful role in muscle protein synthesis.
Angelo Keely: Yeah, and actually, they don’t play just an important role. They’re basically the active component of protein that stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
Chris Kresser: They are the role.
Angelo Keely: They are the role, yeah. They’ve done studies comparing taking only essential amino acids versus non-essential amino acids versus combined. It’s been very clearly shown that essential amino acids are the active component that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. It then uses the other amino acids, but they are the thing that stimulates it and that is able to create the process.
Just [a] quick review of this whole idea of muscle protein synthesis. All the proteins in our body are in some stage of constant muscle protein turnover. They’re breaking down and resynthesizing. If you go without eating for an extended period of time, your body is continuing to break down current proteins and then rebuild them. And in that process, when they’re broken down into the component amino acids and then resynthesized back into proteins again, some of them are lost, around 20 percent. It depends on the age of the person, the function of the body, etc. So you must, at that point, consume more essential amino acids either in the form of a whole food protein or a dietary supplement to support the process of rebuilding those proteins. If you don’t have them, then your body will pull amino acids [and] it will break down proteins in your muscle tissue. Your muscle is basically the only source of amino acid reserves that your body has that is dispensable. You can’t start breaking down your heart and using your heart to fuel other organs, but you can break down your muscles.
So it’s really important to [consume] these amino acids. What happens is there’s one primary amino acid called leucine that kick-starts the process, and there [are] two additional amino acids, isoleucine and valine, that are its buddies, in a way. Those are the branched-chain amino acids. Again, if you’ve been in a GNC or been exposed to bodybuilding or training, you’ve probably seen this idea of branched-chain amino acids. They are the thing that kicks off the process of muscle protein synthesis, which is the rebuilding of the protein in your body. The thing is that, like many times in science, we start to study something [or] we discover a process, [or] maybe we discover a mechanism of action [and] we’re like, “Wow, that’s so cool. It’s the leucine and isoleucine [and] valine that stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Great. Let’s turn that into a product and sell it.” But what we’ve discovered through many more decades of research is that the process of muscle protein synthesis cannot continue and doesn’t even take place without all nine essential amino acids. You need the other six. If you take only certain amino acids, for example, the three branched-chain amino acids, in isolation without the other six, your body needs the other six to perform the muscle protein synthesis. So again, it will pull the other amino acids. It’ll break down existing muscle protein to get those amino acids to complete the process or it will just burn them off. There’s really no benefit of only taking, say, the three branched-chain amino acids in isolation. You need all nine of them together to both stimulate muscle protein synthesis and to actually build new proteins in the body.
Chris Kresser: [That’s] such an important point, and this is something I have talked about in a couple of my [Joe Rogan Experience] appearances [is the] concept of limiting amino acids in plant proteins. It’s not only the fact that plant foods have lower amounts of leucine, which they do relative to animal proteins, [but] they also have certain amino acids at such low levels that [it] can interfere with protein synthesis in the way that you were talking about. An example would be [that] lysine is a limiting amino acid in grains like wheat and rice, and methionine and cysteine tend to be limiting amino acids in foods like legumes. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat those foods; I’m saying [that] if we only rely on those foods for our full spectrum of essential amino acids, then we might come up short. And that might actually interfere with muscle synthesis.
Angelo Keely: It’s such a good point. The way the process of muscle protein synthesis works is that you need certain amino acids to kick-start the process, and then you need enough of the other amino acids to continue and fulfill the process. You either might have limiting ones, where you don’t have enough of them, so the process doesn’t continue or get the optimal benefit, [or] there’s a point at which you consume so many amino acids in the form of protein that it doesn’t get any more benefit from them. It just oxidizes them, or it turns them into an energy source, or it ends up converting them into carbohydrates or fat.
Chris Kresser: You mean, I can’t just take a whole jar of amino acids and turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger? That’s unfortunate.
Angelo Keely: Well, you can, but you have to take them every three hours. You have to take the right dose every three hours to optimally promote the right amount of muscle protein synthesis. But I can see you looking like Arnold.
Chris Kresser: There’s probably some work involved in that, too, somewhere, I’m certain.
Angelo Keely: Yeah. The thing is [that] each one of these amino acids that are limiting, for example, like lysine, can be limiting for different reasons. What’s interesting about lysine is [that] it’s slower to get into muscle fiber. I’m not a biochemist to that level to understand exactly the process by which [it] is slowed down, but that’s why you need to increase the amount of it. For example, if you’re creating a custom essential amino acid supplement, you need to increase the amount. At the most fundamental level, as they’ve studied amino acid profiles, where you start is by having dietary protein that at least has the profile of amino acids that are in human skeletal muscle. You look at the profile of the essential amino acids in human skeletal muscle, [and] that’s a baseline. From there, you basically increase leucine to 40 percent of the final formula. Then [you] also [proportionally] increase the valine and isoleucine, which are the other two branched-chain amino acids, and increase the lysine because it’s slower. Then you get to this optimal ratio where you maximize the amount of muscle protein synthesis.
This is one way in which I think people have found success with [branched-chain amino acids] (BCAAs). If you take BCAAs, and you take [a] big dose of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, but at the same time, you eat another protein source, you’re basically creating your own custom essential amino acid profile. You’re getting a bunch of these extra amino acids on top of the existing profile of whatever the food is that you’re eating. The thing is, you really need to make sure you eat them at the same time. Because if you eat them separately, you won’t get that benefit, which, again, is also one of the challenges of trying to eat an only plant-based diet is [that] you have to strategically choose which plant foods you’re going to eat in which combinations [so] that you don’t have these limiting factors, or you don’t over consume one amino acid and lose the benefit of it.
Chris Kresser: That’s always been my point when I talk about plant-based diets. And look, I have a lot of friends who are vegans [or] vegetarians. I was vegan and vegetarian in the past. I don’t have any sort of philosophical or moral judgment about it; I just want to support people in achieving their best health. And what I’ve seen, both in the research and through my own clinical experience and my own personal experience, is that, while it’s possible to construct a healthy diet using only plant-based sources, it requires an enormous amount of attention and understanding of all these factors that we’re talking about.
If you go to kresser.co/amino, I put this [resource] together for one of the [Joe Rogan Experience] appearances. It’s a chart with the amino acid profiles of various foods [such as] beef sirloin, white beans, cooked peas, rice, and soybeans, and it compares the amino acid levels in all those foods. What you very clearly see is that, in most of the plant foods, they come up short in a lot of the essential amino acids and also have limiting amino acids. Whereas beef meets the [Recommended Dietary Allowance] for all the essential amino acids. So it’s just easier to do it with a mixed diet.
Angelo Keely: That’s really it. It’s just easier. You don’t have to think about it as much. You just need to eat good quality animal protein, and you’re there. Whereas if you choose a plant-based approach, you need to think more about it.
Chris Kresser: Very strategic.
Angelo Keely: Yeah, and those plant-based foods, typically grains, for example, have a lot of other calories from the carbohydrates, as well. You have to start thinking a lot more about caloric intake, too, because to get enough of the amino acids, you’re eating all these additional calories from the carbohydrates that are part of that food source, as well.
Chris Kresser: That’s right. That’s a question of nutrients relative to the amount of calories, and that’s probably one of the primary drivers of our health and well-being.
Let me play devil’s advocate here and say, “Angelo, I’m not a weightlifter. I don’t really care if I have a lot of muscle. I’m not an athlete. I want to be healthy. But I’m not trying to break any world records or deadlift 400 pounds or anything. Why should I care about muscle protein synthesis? Why should that matter to me?”
The Importance of Muscle Protein Synthesis
Angelo Keely: It’s a great question, and you sound like me. I’m not trying to be a powerlifter; I’m not trying to be some kind of competitive athlete. I’m a person who [wants] to live a fun, active life. I want to go on adventures with my family. I’m really into backpacking, so I like to go on backpacking trips. I want to have overall good functional fitness. And I want to have a good, healthy, happy mood day in and day out. I want to sustain this for as long as I can in my life. I’m not one of those guys [who] wants to live forever if it means dealing with really challenging chronic illness. I’m not looking for that. I’m the guy [for whom] it’s like, “Man, it’d be really cool if I can still ride my bike when I’m 80 and go on walks with my family.” In that context, on the day-to-day, consuming enough amino acids and maintaining a normal healthy amount of muscle. And I’m saying normal; I’m not talking about competing as a bodybuilder or anything like that. By having more muscle in my body, it does increase my resting metabolic rate. Every single time that I eat protein or eat essential amino acids and muscle protein synthesis is stimulated, it also increases my metabolism during that period. So overall, it creates a situation in which I get to eat a little bit more of the foods I really like. I love eating, and I love just getting to enjoy and participate in life. And it simply is the case that the more muscle I have and the more that I stimulate muscle protein synthesis, [the more] I can eat. I’m not trying to make an advertisement for gluttony or anything. But I’m also not one of those people [who] wants to live this ultra-restrictive life. I’m trying to find a healthy balance.
So in that way, it really supports pretty normalized weight management without trying to exercise all the time and doing tons of cardio and running and trying to burn off all these calories. By walking every day, doing short, simple, bodyweight resistance training a few times a week, and consuming a healthy dose of amino acids through protein and through dietary supplementation each day, I am able to not live a restricted life in terms of what I get to eat and feel really vibrant, healthy, and happy. On that same note, for daily health, amino acids are the precursors of basically all our neurotransmitters. The way the blood–brain barrier works is that the concentration of certain amino acids in your blood plasma is what influences which amino acids get into your brain and, thus, the predominance of certain neurotransmitters over others. I have found, personally, that eating plenty of protein and amino acids daily helps me maintain a healthier mood and a better overall neurotransmitter balance. I’m extrapolating into a neurotransmitter balance, but in a similar way, separate from this, I have used other amino acids. My company, Kion, [has] a sleep formula that’s specifically amino acid-based that targets that. It tries to increase the amount of certain amino acids in your blood at that time so that it will increase the amount that goes into your brain that then influences certain effects on your neurotransmitters. So mood day in and day out.
But I think, honestly, probably the biggest thing is longevity. When you look at aging, one of the biggest challenges as you age is sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass that starts typically around age 40 or basically [to] everyone over 50, where you start to lose muscle mass. And that is due to the body [having] a harder time digesting dietary protein, and it also is less receptive to the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Thus, even if you eat the protein and you’re able to break it down, it simply doesn’t kick off the amount of muscle protein synthesis that you would when you’re younger. [I’m] trying to be healthy in middle age and wanting to be really healthy in older age, [and] building and maintaining lean muscle now is the thing that will enable me later in my life [to not] have issues with dramatic loss of muscle mass. Now, why would I care? Am I trying to be a bodybuilder in my 70s? No. But the most obvious thing [is] that people [who] have more lean muscle are able to participate in more activities when they’re older. They’re able to go on walks, they’re able to ride bikes, [and] they’re able to participate in all types of activities.
What many people don’t realize, but I mentioned earlier, is that our lean muscle is the reservoir of amino acids for our body. So as we get older and we’re in a situation where it’s that much harder to digest protein and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, it is going to be the case that my body is going to tap into my muscle tissue and utilize it to fuel the rest of the proteins in my body. So the more that I invest, it’s like a savings account, basically. Investing in that now is going to provide for a much healthier, happier, fun, active 60s, 70s, [and] 80s.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. This is a big issue for me. It’s something I talk about a lot because I think it’s poorly understood. I actually was first introduced to this concept when I was in the throes of my chronic illness in my 20s, and I was fortunate to work with an amazing doctor, Dr. John Kaiser, who was in the Bay Area at that time. One of the things I learned from him was the importance of muscle mass for recovery from chronic illness. Because muscle is not just an inner tissue in the body. There’s a lot of metabolic stuff that happens in muscle. And people who have chronic health conditions also can be liable to develop sarcopenia. Then that initiates a whole vicious cycle where, with a decline in muscle mass, the metabolic function, immune function, all those other important functions in the body get weaker and less competent. So he was really big on people who were dealing with any kind of chronic health condition doing strength training, making sure they’re getting enough protein or amino acids in their diet, or supplementing with them, which was not a perspective that I had been familiar with up until then and almost maybe [found] counterintuitive.
If you’re dealing with a really challenging chronic illness, you’re not going to think, “I’m going to go lift some weights.” It actually was a big part of my recovery, really making sure that I took [the] steps to maintain that muscle mass. It gave me more energy, and it really helped me get through some of the most difficult periods. So since then, it’s something I’ve really tried to impart to my patients who are struggling with similar conditions and just [to] people in general. Sarcopenia is no joke. The primary cause of age-related frailty in the elderly is not having enough muscle. There’s a saying in medicine, “break your hip, die of pneumonia.” I think we probably all know someone this has happened to where they’re in their 70s or 80s, [and] maybe they’re a bit frail, but otherwise, they’re doing pretty well. Then they break their knee or they break their hip in a fall, and then they die of pneumonia in the hospital because they’re debilitated and they’re in that reclined position, [and] fluid pools in the lungs, and they can’t recover from that.
There are studies that show that sarcopenia is associated with a greater risk of premature death and a reduced quality of life, and it’s associated with a higher risk of having disabilities that [affect your ability] to perform regular daily activities [and] participate in life. Then I think, as importantly, people with sarcopenia are far more likely to have a fracture or a fall, which then can start a downward spiral that is difficult or, in some cases, impossible to recover from. I’m not trying to freak people out. I’m just trying to impart the significance of avoiding sarcopenia. I believe that maintaining muscle mass as we age is one of the single most important factors that determines how we age. I’m always trying to communicate this to people because I see a lot of folks really leave this out. They’re doing a lot of other things right, but they’re not paying enough attention to muscle mass.
I’m excited to spend this episode of Revolution Health Radio talking to Angelo Keely from Kion about amino acids because not only is he deeply involved with researchers and with the science around amino acids, he makes it really easy to understand. #chriskresser #aminoacids
Angelo Keely: I think the vicious cycle thing you described is one of the key points to highlight. Just like in the prime of one’s life, [they] may notice, “Hey, when I start to make some of these more positive decisions, they almost support each other. If I exercise, then I might be a little bit more likely to eat better, etc.” Unfortunately, the way our bodies work is that if we become injured or we have some type of chronic illness, the stress response in our body reacts in such a way that we have a harder time with muscle protein synthesis, [and] we’re less responsive to dietary protein. We’re also, though, immobile. So then we’re not doing resistance exercise or movements, which is what further stimulates muscle protein turnover. It makes sure the old proteins get broken down and new ones get rebuilt. We’re often not as hungry or we’re not as motivated to try to eat protein or be disciplined. It’s like, if you’re laid up in bed [and] trying to eat chicken or something, it’s easier to eat a cracker.
So each one of these negative impacts further influences itself. If you find that you’re [at a] more advanced age and you don’t have muscle, and you try and do activities, and you fall and you hurt yourself, it’s hard. It’s like you didn’t plan for the future. Save with lean muscle for the future because you’re going to need it at some point.
Chris Kresser: No doubt. And some of the other issues that I became aware of over time as I dove into the research on this, that contribute to that vicious cycle and can be, conversely, turned around into a virtuous cycle if you really bank up extra protein and amino acids. As we age, muscle itself becomes less sensitive to the anabolic effects of protein. That means a 30-year-old [who] eats protein and amino acids will get a bigger anabolic or growth boost from those amino acids than a 60- or 70-year-old. What this means is older adults will need higher amounts of protein and the underlying amino acids through their day and with each meal to achieve the same level of muscle protein synthesis than a younger person would need. This is why you see recommendations for protein for older adults starting to go up again, not down. Because we become less efficient at utilizing protein as we age; 1.5 grams per kilogram is a minimum. For a 150-pound adult, that’s 100 grams of protein a day. If you take someone who’s 200 pounds, that’s going to be 135 grams of protein a day. And a lot of people are not getting enough, especially if they’re skipping breakfast [and] just having coffee or something, they have a light lunch, and then they eat dinner. They’re going to be nowhere near that 135 grams of protein. That’s a situation where certainly, supplementing with amino acids can have a game-changing effect on their health, and also their lifespan and health span.
How to Get an Adequate Amount of Protein and Essential Amino Acids
Angelo Keely: You highlighted two really important points there. One [is] the anabolic resistance that occurs later in life, and that is directly tied to the end result of sarcopenia. In many cases, it’s almost like you have to consume twice the amount of amino acids to get the same response. That’s a lot more protein. That’s pretty challenging already, [and] people tend to lose their appetite more as they get older, etc. The other point you made [is] if you’re 200 pounds, you’re trying to get in 135 grams of protein a day. Not only is it challenging just to get that amount of protein, but the way that we discussed earlier that muscle protein synthesis takes place is that there’s only a certain amount that your body can actually respond to at one time in a dose. I do the math typically more like, I weigh 200 pounds, [and] I try to eat about 150 grams of protein a day, at least. Or the equivalent of that including essential amino acids. I basically want to try to break that up into four to five doses of protein. Because [if I’m] eating more than 30 to 50 grams of protein at once, my body simply won’t be able to incorporate all the amino acids. Instead, it uses them for energy. To actually get the full benefit, you can’t just save the full 150 grams or 135 grams of protein for your dinner at night. Your body won’t be able to utilize it. And when your body’s not in the state of new muscle protein synthesis, it’s in net muscle protein breakdown. Your body’s constantly in this muscle protein turnover process. If you go for several hours without eating protein or amino acids, your body is breaking down the existing proteins and rebuilding them. But again, it doesn’t have enough to completely replenish them. So if you go several hours without eating any protein source, you’re getting to a net negative muscle protein position. Which is why, and I’m not encouraging anyone to do this, bodybuilders eat these doses of lean chicken every three hours.
Chris Kresser: They’re not big fans of intermittent fasting.
Angelo Keely: No, they’re not at all. They eat protein every three to four hours. They wake themselves up in the middle of the night. And that’s because whenever they’re not, they know that they’re having muscle protein breakdown. Again, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do that. But when you’re thinking, “God, that’s a lot of eating,” suddenly you start to realize. This is exactly how I use essential amino acids. I’m not using them to replace my core daily protein. But if I’m trying to hit those upper limits of at least 150 [grams], and sometimes more; if I’m doing intense resistance training, or I know I’m going on a really big hike or something like that, I’ll consume more.
What’s interesting is when you realize that the essential amino acids are the active component of protein, and most complete protein, like steak, is only about half essential amino acids. Gram for gram, essential amino acids in a dietary supplement, if formulated correctly, create twice the impact of muscle protein synthesis as a steak.
Chris Kresser: [This] is why bodybuilders have been using them for so long. People [often] give bodybuilders a hard time, but the reality is if you want to know what’s on the cutting edge of nutrition and performance, that’s not a bad place to look. They’re not always right because they’re often experimenting with things that aren’t proven and end up not being a good idea. But bodybuilders have been hip to this for a long time. And if something has been as consistent as it has been in a population of people that are trying to ultra-optimize performance, and, of course, we have all the science to back it up, as well, it’s not like this was just an anecdotal thing; there’s certainly something to be said for it.
Angelo Keely: And I think particularly, like you said, things that have lasted through the time, right? There might have been things that we were doing a lot in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But some of these things like essential amino acids [and] creatine [are] still here. If they’re still here after 30 and 40 years of tons of research, there’s a reason why they’re still here.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. And all the top people are still using them in these various sports. I want to finish this up and then move on, but I want to linger on it a little bit because I really do think that even among folks who are health conscious and eating animal protein and doing a lot of the right things, they’re still not getting enough protein to support their anabolic needs. If you think about an average day, you start with a couple of eggs for breakfast, maybe a couple [of] pieces of bacon or something like that, with some like dark leafy greens, and then you have maybe a salad for lunch and maybe you put some salmon or chicken on it or something like that. An egg has about five to six grams of protein. So that might be 12 [grams]. You might be at 20 [grams] in the morning. You might get another 20 [or] 30 [grams] at lunch. Then you’re left with dinner, where you’re going to have to eat a lot of protein. And like you said, that doesn’t solve the problem because you can only utilize a certain amount of amino acids at any one sitting. So this is something [that] I’m always trying to bring to people’s attention. In our culture, we have this notion that breakfast has to be breakfast food. Croissants and muffins and things like that. If you have a breakfast like that, or if you skip breakfast entirely, it is sometimes difficult to meet your protein needs. And that is one note of caution that I often provide to people who are intermittent fasting on a consistent and regular basis, or they’re having [a] very light breakfast with no protein, [is that] you really need to pay attention to how much protein you are getting in that food intake window.
Angelo Keely: My general approach to working through this, and I would say, most of the people I know [who] pay a lot more attention to daily amino acid intake, is trying to eat good healthy meals at regular mealtimes. That can be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you’re someone who likes to intermittent[ly] fast, that’s okay. But any time you’re not eating for a while, so if you’re between lunch and dinner, let’s say you eat lunch at 12:00 [p.m.] and you eat dinner at 6:00 [p.m.], that 3:00 p.m. time, instead of having just any snack then, that is a time when you can stimulate muscle protein synthesis again. Because your body will have already completed the process from a few hours earlier. That could be via some very healthy whole food protein, or that’s a great opportunity to take essential amino acids. The benefit of taking essential amino acids at that time is you can take half the amount gram for gram as you would try to take of protein to get the same benefits of muscle protein synthesis.
So you could take 10 grams of amino acids, and you get the impact of eating 20 grams of beef jerky or something. Or 20 grams of yogurt or something. And you can do the exact same thing in the morning. Again, I just really encourage anyone who’s doing the intermittent fasting thing, you’re eating away at your muscle tissue when you’re doing that. So even if you like it, and I actually often like to fast because I like the clarity of mind, but if I’m doing that, I definitely take essential amino acids during that period to ensure that I’m hitting those daily needs for essential amino acids, even if it’s not a complete protein at that time. And I get my other major doses of protein for sure at lunch and dinner. Basically, when you want to snack, don’t just have any snack. Make it protein or take essential amino acids.
Safety and Protein Intake
Chris Kresser: Let’s talk a little bit about safety and protein intake. Because sometimes I get questions from patients like, “Hey, wait, isn’t it dangerous to eat 150 grams of protein a day? Isn’t that going to give me chronic kidney disease?” This is something I’ve written and spoken a lot about over the years, but I always like to touch on it. It’s true that high-protein diets can cause kidney problems. But that’s only the case in people with pre-existing chronic kidney disease. I’ve never seen any studies that suggest that a high-protein diet can cause kidney problems in people [who] didn’t already have some issue or some predisposition in that direction. A lot of research has shown that the upper limit to the body’s ability to metabolize proteins is around 35 percent of total calories. I’ve seen papers that have looked at protein intake up to almost three grams per kilogram, which is over six grams per pound of body weight, with no significant issues with glomerular filtration or any kind of kidney function problems. I imagine you get that question sometimes, too, with amino acids. Am I doing too much if I’m taking amino acids and eating a relatively high-protein diet?
Angelo Keely: Yeah, I get the same question. I respond to it in the same way, that the research shows that if you have pre-existing kidney problems, then yes, you should be more attentive to the amount of daily protein and amino acid intake. But if you don’t, there’s very little [or] no risk. I think that what it comes down to then is how much protein or amino acids do you really need? If you’re eating six grams of protein per pound of body weight a day, what are you doing? Why are you eating that much? Even with essential amino acids. There was a study sponsored by NASA, because people going into outer space don’t have resistance, so there’s a dramatic loss of muscle mass. They did a study where some of the people took nothing or had regular meals, and the others did six doses of 15 grams of amino acids plus some carbs per day. Every three hours, they would have 15 grams of these essential amino acids and some carbs. And at the end of 28 days, there was no net muscle loss, and they were [on] bed rest for 28 days. They literally kept these people in bed for 28 days. There was muscle strength loss because they weren’t doing the resistance training. So the actual training of the muscles, the breakdown and resynthesis that’s involved specifically in the training of the muscles wasn’t there. So there was strength loss. But [for] actual muscle mass, there was no muscle mass loss after 28 days of bed rest.
Chris Kresser: That’s remarkable. Because that can start so quickly after just a couple of days without that kind of attention.
Angelo Keely: They ended up changing the study down to seven days because they realized they were making the people go crazy.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that’s cruel and unusual punishment.
Angelo Keely: But all that to say, that’s a lot of essential amino acids. You’re taking 90 grams of essential amino acids a day, and there were no side effects that were discovered. The main insights of the study were [that] just consuming protein, or just consuming essential amino acids in this case, can stimulate enough muscle protein synthesis to maintain muscle mass, even if you’re bedridden.
Chris Kresser: Well, [those are] the building blocks of life, right? Let’s talk a little bit as we wrap up here about what to look for in an essential amino acid or amino acid supplement in general, and then what makes Kion aminos unique? Because I’ve tried a lot of amino acid formulas over the years, and Kion really is, I think, distinct in the marketplace. I love the way that you’ve approached it. I mean, I know this about you; you’re a geek with the science, and you did a very deep dive when you formulated this product, and really made sure that you addressed all the issues that tend to be out there with typical, inferior amino acid products, of which there are many. Because of this long history and proliferation in the bodybuilding community, there’s a lot of junk products out there. So tell us how you approached this and what makes Kion unique.
What to Look For in an Amino Acid Supplement and Why Kion Is Unique
Angelo Keely: It comes down to two main factors, and they are the science and research involved in the formulation process: the proper proportions of the amino acids relative to each other. And the second element is commitment to quality. On the formulation side, we had an original formula that we changed about a year ago. We started the process two years ago. And the reason why we updated it is because we really are committed to ensuring that whatever formula we have out there is based on the best science. And I don’t mean the newest, most cutting-edge study that just came out, but [rather], what does the bulk of [the] research say? What do the smartest, best people who spend all their life doing this say? Not whatever some recent study or some recent funding grant came up with. I can give you these resources, too, for your audience, if they’re interested. There’s a guy named Dr. Robert Wolfe, who’s the pioneer of amino acid research, like the Godfather. Most of the people who have come out of doing protein amino acid research have come out of his lab or studied with him. He’s got over 500 peer-reviewed published papers. He has a great, simple book called A Guide to Amino Acid and Protein Nutrition. It’s simple in terms of [that] it’s only a few hundred pages [and] not [having to] pore through 500 research papers.
Chris Kresser: And just for clarity for my audience, it’s not Robb Wolf, [who] you know. A different Rob, Dr. Robert Wolfe. [They’re] different people.
Angelo Keely: Yeah, this is Dr. Robert Wolfe. He’s not a guy you’re going to find out there on Instagram. He’s at an academic institution doing research. No dig on Robb; Robb’s a great guy. But just to clarify, this is an [academic researcher].
Chris Kresser: And Robb’s a biochemist, but not a specialist in amino acids.
Angelo Keely: So basically, this group of researchers across many different institutions have published many, many papers on the subject and the consensus of how to create the best amino acid supplement that is specifically focused on the types of subjects that we have discussed here today. Because you could formulate amino acid supplements to do different things. But if your goal is to support muscle protein synthesis and all the benefits surrounding that, which also include athletic recovery, which we didn’t get into, [but] it really can help with not getting sore, [then] the foundation of that formula would be based on the proportions of essential amino acids that exist in human skeletal muscle. Then you increase the amount of leucine to be 40 percent of the final formula. You increase the proportions of isoleucine and valine to match the relationship to leucine, initially, and you increase the amount of lysine because it’s slower to move into the muscle fiber. And that formula [is] published on our website, [and] it’s published on the back of our bottle; you can see it. That formula includes all nine essential amino acids. It includes five of them in their initial relationships to each other in human skeletal muscle and then an increase of the other four. And that, again and again, has been proven to be the most superior formula.
It’s not some secret, proprietary thing that I’m telling you where you can’t read about it. There’s tons of literature on it, [and] other people could make the same formula. Our interest is not to try to have some fancy, secret thing. It’s just to make awesome products and to make the best amino acids that we can make. And the science clearly showed that this has the greatest impact on people’s lives.
On the quality side, it really comes down to each company’s mission and values and what they’re most committed to. We’ve built this company without any outside investment. We’ve built this company entirely with people [who] we really care about, like the team members that we hire, [and] the culture. We’ve built this company focused on making products that we want to take every single day. I was raised in a very nerdy natural health supplement family. My parents were in the supplement business, had a natural health food store, [and] had a natural health food restaurant. So I was raised with a commitment to these types of things, and I care deeply about them. I only want to make products that I’m willing to put in my body every single day, that I can, with integrity, give to other people to take in high doses. Ninety grams of essential amino acids if they wanted to on a daily basis. That I will give to my kids. And what that requires is deep investment in understanding the supply chain [and] the raw ingredients that you’re getting, deep investment in auditing of manufacturing facilities, deep investment in testing at every single stage, testing raw ingredients, testing finished product, random audits. It’s a commitment to spend time, money, resources, and people’s attention on not letting anything slip by and just making the best product you can make. And not adding anything additional you don’t need to add to it. Just make it what it is. So I almost feel like it sounds old-fashion[ed] or something.
Chris Kresser: Nothing wrong with that.
Angelo Keely: Yeah, it’s a commitment to craftsmanship I guess. I think that’s what makes us different. We’re not here for anything else.
Chris Kresser: We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if that wasn’t the case. You know me and my approach to this, and I’m only interested in that, as well. As a clinician with 15 years of experience treating patients, and someone with a big online platform and a lot of people who trust my recommendations, it’s critical to me that both as a clinician and as someone who is trying to help as many people live their best life possible, that all the recommendations I make are products that are made by people who have these values and have the same commitment to quality and who will make choices that actually could result in leaving money on the table, and not cutting corners, [and] not reducing costs when it doesn’t make sense for the integrity or quality of the product.
And that’s pretty rare in the supplement world, in my experience. But it’s something I definitely recognized in your products and why I’m easily able to recommend them and take them myself. Because obviously, I’m not going to take anything less than that. I know too much. I know where the bodies are buried in the supplement business, and I know what those issues are in the supply chain that you’re alluding to. I know how many crappy products are out there. So I’m super happy to be able to recommend Kion. I love the amino acids, and they’ve been a big help. I’m pushing 50, but I feel in some ways like I’m performing at as high a level and even higher, in some areas, than I have in my life. I skied 100 days this season, which feels like a big accomplishment.
Angelo Keely: That is awesome, Chris. That’s so awesome. It’s impressive.
Chris Kresser: And I’m skiing better than I ever have. I’m working with a coach. I went heliskiing with some people we both know, Angelo. I think you know what trip I’m talking about. We did like 45,000 feet of vertical one day. And I was tired at the end of the day, but I was keeping up with the 25-year-olds, which I was pretty happy about. So they’ve been a big help to me in maintaining that level of performance and recovery, which, for me, is what it’s all about. Like you said, I love to be active, and I want to be active until the day I die. My heroes are the guy here that everybody knows in Utah who is 96, and he’s still skiing 50 days a year. That’s who I want to be. And I’ve discovered that [amino acids are] going to be a big part of that protocol for me.
All right, everybody. If you want to give these a try, go over to GetKion.com/Kresser, and you can save 20 percent off your order. There [are also] lots of great resources on the website like a guide to amino acids [and] how to use them. I think whether you’re younger than me at this point, but really want to optimize your performance and recovery and longevity, build muscle mass, [and] get all the benefits that we’ve been talking about, or you’re someone who’s in my situation where you’re approaching middle age, whatever that means now, and you want to stay active and super healthy and robust and extend your health span.
We use them in the clinic a lot for people who are getting older and their appetite is lower. They’ve got digestive issues [or] they’re not digesting protein as well. They want to keep those protein levels up so they can stay strong and age gracefully. There [are] so many different cases. They can be a huge help in all those cases. [One] great thing about amino acids, because they’re just constituents of dietary protein, [is that] they’re well-tolerated, they don’t interact with other supplements or medications, [and they] don’t tend to have side effects other than feeling better. They can become a great part of the daily routine in staying healthy. So that’s GetKion.com/Kresser. Angelo, thanks for coming on the show. It’s been a really fascinating conversation, and I really appreciate you taking the time to do it.
Angelo Keely: Thanks for having me, Chris. I love the opportunity to talk aminos, especially with someone as knowledgeable and passionate as yourself about them.
Chris Kresser: Thanks, everyone, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.
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