Breaking down the BCAA ballyhoo, one amino acid at a time.
For a muscle, it’s all about that protein hustle
Navigating the maze of dietary supplements can sometimes feel like trying to decipher an alien language, and all sorts of questions arise. Does pre-workout work? Is creatine vegan? Are BCAAs worth it?
No worries, I’m here to help clear the foggy air that the supplement industry uses to confuse us. Today we’ll tackle that third question, no problem.
Let’s begin with one fundamental truth: Not all supplements are created equal.
And if you’re an active individual, the supplements you choose can greatly affect your workout routine, your workout results, and your overall health.
Especially when it comes to our body’s intake of those critical building blocks of the protein our muscles must have — amino acids.
And three of those amino acids that get a lot more attention than the others are the branched-chain amino acids, our focus today.
BCAAs got hype
Branch Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs for short, are one such supplement that has been making waves in the fitness world for years now.
They’re often spotlighted for their potential muscle-building benefits, and the BCAA buzz has everyone from bodybuilders to casual gym-goers wondering about their worth.
My aim with this blog post is to unpack the science behind BCAAs, dissect their real value, and guide you in making an informed decision for your unique fitness journey.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
So, are BCAAs worth it?
In my view it depends. For most people who can simply maintain a balanced diet with adequate ‘complete protein’ intake, BCAA supplementation is likely not necessary.
Yet for others with certain dietary issues — particularly those on restrictive diets or struggling with protein intake — BCAA supplements might have some benefits. Stick with me to get the full picture.
Branched-chain amino acids are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
They are called “branched-chain” due to their structure, which stands out from other amino acids.
BCAAs: 3 aminos among many
To fully understand the role of BCAAs, let’s look into the world of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that your body needs to function.
Nine of these are “essential”, meaning your body can’t produce them, so you have to get them from your diet. The rest are “non-essential”, which your body can make from other compounds if needed.
Among these essential amino acids, our three BCAAs are especially important. They represent a significant portion of the total essential amino acids in your body and play an integral role in muscle building.
They do this by promoting muscle protein synthesis, the process your body uses to build new proteins, and this process is crucial for muscle growth and repair.
Unraveling BCAA Myths
It’s no secret that supplement companies can be enthusiastic promoters of BCAAs. And when I use the words enthusiastic promoters I’m being kind, by the way.
They emphasize the potential muscle-building benefits and the role of BCAAs in protein synthesis.
However, it’s crucial to dig a little deeper and examine these claims with a critical eye.
Anabolism & the BCAA
First let’s take a closer look at the concept of the anabolic state. This is essentially the state in which your body is building up muscle, and it’s driven by protein synthesis.
While it’s true that BCAAs, particularly leucine, stimulate protein synthesis, they are not the whole story.
BCAAs < EAAs
You see, protein synthesis is a complex process that requires all nine essential amino acids, not just the three BCAAs.
So while BCAAs can kickstart the process, they can’t complete it without the other essential amino acids.
Moreover, research has shown that while BCAA supplements can boost muscle protein synthesis rates, they don’t do it as effectively as complete protein sources.
So while BCAAs play a key role in protein synthesis, they’re just part of a bigger puzzle. What’s more, BCAAs alone might not lead to the muscle growth that you might expect.
If your goal is to build muscle, your best bet is not to rely solely on BCAA supplements, but to consume a balanced diet rich in complete proteins.
Supplementing BCAAs vs Dietary Protein
In my many years involved in the fitness/nutrition industry scene, I’ve come across a lot of talk about protein turnover.
This is a continuous process in your body where old proteins get broken down (that’s protein breakdown) and new ones get built (that’s protein synthesis).
The balance between these two processes plays a key role in muscle building.
For muscle growth, you want protein synthesis to be higher than protein breakdown. This is where dietary protein comes in. When you eat a meal rich in protein, it boosts protein synthesis.
But remember, it’s not just any protein—it’s complete protein containing all the essential amino acids.
BCAA supplements are incomplete
Here’s the thing about BCAAs: while they are essential amino acids, they don’t give you all nine that your body needs.
So relying solely on BCAA supplementation might not be the most efficient way to boost protein synthesis and muscle growth.
Comparing BCAA supplementation to dietary sources of protein, the latter comes out ahead.
Protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs provide all essential amino acids your body needs, making them superior for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
EAA challenges for vegans (more later)
Of course for vegans, dietary protein sources shift. Plant-based foods can be great protein sources too. The trick is to consume a variety, to ensure you get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
More on this later when we delve into BCAAs and vegetarian/vegan diets.
Debunking the Leucine Hypothesis
Leucine is one of the three BCAAs and it gets a lot of attention. It’s often considered the “king” of amino acids due to its ability to initiate the process of muscle protein synthesis.
While it’s true that leucine plays a significant role in this process, it’s not the be-all-end-all.
Focus on EAAs
Here’s why: to keep muscle protein synthesis going, your body needs a steady supply of all the essential amino acids (EAAs), not just leucine.
It’s like trying to build a house with only bricks and no cement, wood, or other materials. You might start, but you won’t get very far.
Some research suggests that supplementing with leucine alone can stimulate muscle protein synthesis. But without a sufficient supply of all EAAs, this stimulation is short-lived.
This is a critical point that’s often overlooked in the discussion about leucine and BCAAs.
BOTTOM LINE: In the end, while leucine is a key player, it doesn’t singlehandedly decide the game. Just as a star quarterback needs a supportive team to win, leucine needs the rest of the EAAs to effectively sustain muscle protein synthesis.
Benefits of BCAAs
Now, let’s not completely discount BCAAs. They do have their place, and there are benefits to consider.
MUSCLE GROWTH: First, BCAAs do play a role in muscle growth. They’re involved in triggering muscle protein synthesis, the process by which your body builds new muscle tissue.
If you’re doing heavy resistance training, that added bit of support can be helpful.
POST-WORKOUT RECOVERY: Second, BCAAs are believed to aid in the recovery process post-workout. This might be due to their potential to reduce muscle soreness and decrease muscle damage.
For some, this could translate to feeling less beat the day after a tough workout.
LIVER SUPPORT: Then there’s liver health. Some research suggests that BCAAs can help in the treatment of certain liver diseases. That’s pretty impressive, and it’s a whole different angle to consider beyond the realm of fitness.
MAINTAIN MUSCLE: Lastly, there’s the potential of BCAAs to help prevent muscle loss. If you’re in a situation where you’re not able to consume adequate protein, like in severe illness or malnutrition, BCAAs could potentially serve as a helpful supplement.
While these benefits can sound promising, it’s important to remember that most individuals can get adequate BCAAs from a balanced diet. Supplementing is not always necessary, and it’s never a replacement for a good diet.
BCAAs in Action: Exercise & Working Out
In the context of exercise and workouts, there’s a common notion that BCAAs can offer some advantage. How solid is the sports science in support of this theory?
The idea is that they may improve muscle growth and reduce muscle soreness, commonly known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), for instance.
BCAA & muscle building
The “BCAAs cause muscle growth” claim stems from the role of BCAAs in muscle protein synthesis that we looked at earlier.
But just like before, any boost in muscle building needs all essential amino acids need to be present, not just the three BCAAs. Sensing the pattern here?
One again the BCAAs play their part, but they’re not the magic bullets for muscle growth.
BCAA & DOMS
As for DOMS, there is some evidence that BCAA supplementation can reduce muscle soreness following exercise.
But the caveat is that this does not necessarily correlate with improved muscle function or workout performance.
You might feel less sore, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll lift heavier or run faster.
BCAAs & metabolism
Then we have metabolic health considerations. BCAAs, especially leucine, are involved in various metabolic processes in the body.
However, the impact of BCAA supplementation on metabolic health isn’t clear cut, and a well-rounded diet seems to be the most effective approach for maintaining metabolic health.
Lastly, it’s crucial to consider BCAA supplements in the context of your overall dietary consumption.
If your diet already provides an adequate amount of all essential amino acids, BCAA supplementation on top of that has not proven it provides additional benefits.
After all, you can’t force-feed muscle growth – once your body has what it needs, any extra might not contribute much.
BCAAs for Vegetarian/Vegan Diets
Shifting gears slightly, let’s talk about plant-based diets, namely vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. A common challenge on these diets is getting enough of all essential amino acids, including BCAAs.
It’s not that plant-based foods don’t contain BCAAs; it’s just that they are not as densely packed in plants as they are in animal-based foods.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s impossible. On the contrary, it’s entirely doable with a little bit of planning and knowledge.
And that’s where plant-based protein sources like lentils, chickpeas, and a variety of nuts and seeds come into play.
They all contain a decent amount of BCAAs and can contribute to meeting your amino acid needs.
How about taking pea-centric protein powder?
But in case you’re struggling to get there with whole foods alone, or if you’re just looking for some added convenience, there’s a solution: plant-based protein powders.
They offer high-quality protein, complete with all essential amino acids, and can help ensure you’re not falling short on your BCAA intake.
Or you can take it bare bones like I do, and supplement with just pea protein powder alone.
From my experience, there’s also something quite satisfying about a scoop of pure pea protein in my ‘between meals’ or post-workout smoothie.
And it’s not just about the protein; it’s about knowing that you’re taking care of your nutritional needs while staying true to your dietary preferences.
You’ve likely had a few questions cropping up in your mind as we’ve been discussing BCAAs. Here are some common ones:
What's the difference between BCAAs and amino acids?
All BCAAs are amino acids, but not all amino acids are BCAAs.
BCAAs are a subset of the amino acids, specifically including leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
How are BCAAs made?
BCAAs, like other amino acids, are naturally occurring compounds.
For commercial purposes, they're often synthesized from plant sources through a process known as fermentation.
Do BCAAs have calories?
Yes, BCAAs do have calories. Each gram of BCAAs is typically considered to have about 4 calories, just like any other protein.
Are BCAAs vegan?
Yes, most BCAAs on the market today are vegan. They're usually derived from plant sources such as corn or soy.
But it's always a good idea to check the label to make sure.
Can you mix creatine with BCAA?
Sure you can. Both creatine and BCAAs serve different functions.
While BCAAs are involved in protein synthesis and muscle repair, creatine helps to replenish energy stores in your muscles.
Do BCAAs cause hair loss?
There's no direct evidence to suggest that BCAAs cause hair loss.
On the contrary, some research suggests that BCAAs might promote hair growth by boosting protein synthesis in hair follicle cells.
Do BCAAs break a fast?
There’s a debate going with this issue.
Some people believe that because BCAAs have a small calorie content, they technically break a fast. Others argue that since they don’t spike insulin levels like other food types, they can be consumed during fasting.
Why avoid BCAAs while breastfeeding?
While BCAAs themselves aren’t harmful, certain BCAA supplements might contain other ingredients or additives that aren’t recommended for breastfeeding mothers. As always, it’s best to consult with your doctor.
Are BCAA a waste of money?
As we’ve discussed earlier, it really depends on your personal circumstances. For most people who consume enough protein through their diet, BCAA supplements might not provide any additional benefits.
They might be helpful for some individuals like vegans or vegetarians who struggle to get enough BCAAs from their food.
However even then, simply supplementing your vegan diet with plant-based complete protein powders like pea & pea blends is a better choice health-wise than BCAAs alone.
Related articles here on heydayDo
Well that’s about it; we’ve traveled quite the BCAA journey together, haven’t we? Before I sign off, let’s take a glance back at the ground we’ve covered:
* BCAAs, comprising of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, play a crucial role in muscle protein synthesis.
* BCAA supplements have been heavily marketed at us but their benefits can generally be obtained from a balanced, protein-rich diet.
* BCAA supplementation alone isn’t enough for muscle growth; complete proteins are key.
* The importance of leucine for initiating muscle protein synthesis doesn’t undermine the need for a complete profile of essential amino acids.
* While BCAAs do offer benefits like enhancing muscle growth, supporting recovery, and maintaining liver health, their effectiveness is context-dependent.
* For vegans and vegetarians, sourcing BCAAs without the pills might require a bit more planning, but it’s doable with some attention to dietary choices.
And there you have it, the wide world of BCAAs in a nutshell.
Remember that knowledge is power, and understanding the science behind these supplements helps you make informed decisions about your health and fitness.
I hope this article is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.