It is important for preppers to have a basic understanding of nutrition. Any of a number of short- or long-term disasters might disrupt the food supply. If so, your diet will likely change, and you should have sufficient knowledge of nutrition to make the best decisions about which foods to store, buy, or grow. This prepping and survival post is about protein and its constituent amino acids, especially those that are essential.
Three macronutrients are needed for the survival and health of the human body: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. But it is not enough to have plenty of protein, in terms of grams per day. You also need to have sufficient amounts of each of the essential amino acids. Protein is nothing but a chain of amino acids: a chemical with an amine group on one end (-NH2) and carboxylic acid group (-COOH) on the other end. Your body strings together various amino acids to make whatever types of protein are needed. Your body can also make individual amino acids out of whatever proteins are in the diet, with a few exceptions. Those amino acids that the body cannot make are called essential amino acids. These essential amino acids must be found in the diet; they cannot be made by the body.
There are 22 amino acids used by the human body. But the essential amino acids are nine: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine. Two other amino acids are closely related to the essential amino acids. Cysteine is made by your body from methionine, so if your diet has cysteine, it needs less methionine. Thus, cysteine is said to have a sparing effect on the essential amino acid methionine. When considering the amount of methionine in the diet, these two amino acids are usually added together, and are termed: methionine+cysteine. Similarly, tyrosine has a sparing effect on phenylalanine: phenylalanine+tyrosine.
How much of each essential amino acid does a food provide? The answer can be found quickly on this website: BitterPoison.com. Enter a food, and the result will take the listing of that food in the USDA National Nutrient Database and analyze its essential amino acid content relative to the recommended proportions of each amino acid. For example, rice (Rice, white, long-grain, regular, raw, enriched) has all essential amino acids in sufficient proportions (score greater than or equal to 1.00), except for lysine, which is present at 71% of ideal proportions (0.71). The same analysis holds for most grains — the only essential amino acid lacking is lysine.
Pulses (legumes, beans, lentils, etc.) tend to have plenty of lysine and not enough methionine+cysteine. So combining a pulse with a grain makes for a complete protein. Two protein sources are called complementary if together they provide sufficient total protein and enough of each and every essential amino acid.
Certain individual foods are a complete protein: meat, poultry, fish, egg, and most dairy products. They don’t need to be combined with a complementary protein source. Some grains are also a complete protein, including: quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Other grains lack only lysine: rice, wheat, maize (corn), barley. So even though 9 amino acids are “essential”, from a practical point of view, you mainly need to be concerned with obtaining enough lysine in your diet. As long as your staple food is a grain, you will be getting sufficient amounts of all the other essential amino acids. Lysine is the most essential of the essential amino acids.
Now maybe you are thinking that your current diet has enough meat and dairy that essential amino acids are not a concern. Fine. But if there is a disaster that disrupts the food supply, your diet might change. Meat, poultry, fish, egg, and dairy are all more difficult to store long-term. They generally require refrigeration, so they are more susceptible to problems in the food supply chain. I’m not suggesting that we all become vegetarians or vegans. But if your diet should change, so that it is mostly based on grains, you will need to consider adding foods to your meals that are high in lysine.
Foods that are high in lysine, with the percent of ideal proportion of lysine:
sprouted lentils (156%)
adzuki beans (148%)
soybeans dry (145%)
peas dry split (142%)
mung beans (136%)
dried egg whites (133%)
lima beans (131%)
soybeans fresh, Edamame (117%)
peas fresh green (115%)
amaranth grain (108%)
potato, mashed dried flakes (107%)
quinoa grain (106%)
buckwheat whole flour (99%)
sunflower seeds (88%)
pumpkin seeds (80%)
Sunflower seeds (0.937 g lysine per 100 g food) and pumpkin seeds (1.236 g) have less than the ideal proportion of lysine, but they are each so high in total protein, that the amount (as opposed to the proportion) of lysine is high. So those two types of seeds end up being a good source of additional protein in the diet.
Lentils are one of the few legumes that has a better essential amino acid profile when sprouted. Most other legumes have lower amounts of essential amino acids after sprouting. Adzuki beans (also called azuki beans) are popular in Japan. They are a relatively ordinary looking red bean, but they are higher in lysine than any other bean, including soybeans. Mature soybeans, allowed to dry on the vine, are a complete protein, are high in lysine, and contain plenty of both essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3 fat. Soybeans should be in the survival garden of every prepper. The green soybeans, picked fresh, are called Edamame; these are not a complete protein, since they are lacking in methionine. The amino acid profile changes as the bean matures on the vine.
In summary, if you are eating a grain-based diet, you will probably have sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids, with the possible exception of lysine. The above listed lysine-rich foods should be a top priority for either food storage, or growing in your garden, in order to ensure a balance diet.