Amino Acids Vs Protein… What’s the Difference?

The short answer is, not much! So why bother taking both? Let’s delve a little deeper…

An amino acid (aa) is the basic building block of protein, whilst protein is the basic building block of our body, so they are basically one and the same thing. As mentioned in yesterdays ‘Fact of the Day’, there are a total of 20 aa’s comprising 9 essential and 11 non-essential aa’s.

Essential amino acids



These cannot be made by the body, meaning they must be ingested via our diet via a combination of key sources such as meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs. Plant sources such as vegetables and grains will not deliver all the essential aa’s, no matter how many of them you consume, this is because they lack at least on essential aa! Therefore vegetarians, or those who eat little meat or dairy, should aim to combine forces i.e. consume peas with rice to cumulatively meet your essential aa requirement. Incidentally, there is only one food that actually contains all 9 essential aa’s in one serving, that is… the humble egg!

Branched- chain amino acids (BCAA’s)

These include the essential aa’s Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine. These are separated due to their structural distinction as well as their prominence in skeletal muscle (making up 14-18% of muscles aa’s), which I think you’ll agree is of key interest in the bodybuilding and fitness industry? The ISSN (2010) explain how BCAA’s are the most effective aa in the development of lean muscle tissue…even more reason to make sure you’re not losing out on your essential aa’s!

Non- essential amino acids

Aspartic acid
Glutamic acid

These must be ingested via our diet, but unlike the essential aa’s, these can also be made by our body. In order for our bodies to internally synthesise these non-essential aa’s, they must have an abundant pool of essential aa’s to draw from. Both essential and non-essential amino acids are integral to the integrity and development of smooth muscle tissue (e.g. trachea, arteries and iris of the eye), cardiac (i.e. heart) and skeletal muscle (e.g. striated voluntary muscles such as biceps, triceps and quads). Not only this, amino acids are fundamental components of enzymes, hormones, skin and hair!


When we speak of protein we loosely refer to servings of meat, fish, eggs, or (of course) protein powders, shakes or bars. The ‘protein’ has been derived from some form of living organism be it an animal or a plant, and has been broken down to a powder form. In these forms, the protein is still in its complete form until it is broken down both mechanically and chemically in our mouths and digestive tracts. During this process the protein is dismantled down to its individual amino acids which can then be re-assigned to muscle, enzymes or hormones, basically wherever your body see’s fit…how diverse can one nutritional component be!?

Therefore, it’s not fair to compare protein and amino acids in a head to head, that would be like asking who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee or Bruce Lee’s 21st century clone! What we can say is that in regards to training, both protein and amino acids have their rightful place.

A BCAA supplement such as Reflex Nutrition BCAA’s (capsules) approx 40mins prior to your workout (brand dependant) will serve as a drip feed of essential aa’s to stave off muscle catabolism (breakdown) during your workout. Alternatively you could opt for Optimum Nutrition BCAA (powder) to sip during the 30mins before and during your training session. Then comes the trusted protein shake, ensure you neck this within 30mins after your training session to ensure you replenish your amino acid pools (once your body breaks down the protein) during the optimal anabolic (growth) window. Some people choose to ‘book end’ their protein shakes i.e. consume a shake before and after their session, but many also find that ingesting 200-300ml of fluid repeats on them during their session in the shape of reflux and nausea…hence the relevance of a capsule amino acid before, or a liquid source to be sipped during!

Reflex Nutrition | BCAAs                  Optimum Nutrition | BCAA Powder                XL Nutrition | Xtra Whey


Kreider, R, B., Wilborb, C, D., Campbell, B., Almada, A, L., Collins, R., Cooke, M et al, (2010). ISSN exercise & Sport Nutrition Review: Research & Recommendations. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition. 7: 1550-2783.

Llewellyn, W. (2009). Sport Supplement Reference Guide. Carnitine. FL: Molecular Nutrition LLC of Jupiter.

About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!


  • Constantin
    August 31, 2013 Constantin

    Hi! I'm using at the moment a whey protein but i just ordered some amino acids (2700 pills). Do u think it's ok to combine these or how should i take them.
    Thanks .

    • Scott Riches
      September 2, 2013 Scott Riches

      Hi there, you can use whey protein and amino acids pills. This is fine to combine the two.

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