You probably already know how important it is to ensure you have a healthy diet of whole foods and get enough protein in it.
Protein, in particular, is pretty vital for various reasons. For example, getting enough protein is essential for gym-goers, and anyone focused on building muscle, and it applies to anyone who wants to get stronger or has a specific weight loss goal in mind too.
Athletes know this and so do bodybuilders. People consider protein a good pre-workout supplement, and a fat loss aid. You may know this as well if you’ve been reading up on sports nutrition or looking for tips for muscle gains.
After all, the amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, from protein sources are “fed” into our muscles to help them grow.
But did you know there’s a specific group of amino acids called BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, that many say are the gold standard for muscle-building nutrients?
So what’s the deal with these amino acids? Are BCAAs worth it, or just overhyped? Read on to learn more about what BCAAs are, break down what science says about them, and whether they’re worth considering.
What are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?
There are 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential. Unlike non-essential amino acids, essential amino acids are those that your body cannot produce, so you must get them from dietary sources.
Three of the nine essential amino acids are BCAAs, a specific group of amino acids that get their name from their branched-chain structure. This group of amino acids includes:
For you to grow muscle, the rate at which your body builds muscle fibers has to be greater than the rate at which your muscles are broken down. And, yes, a little bit of muscle breakdown is a healthy physiological process, as the amino acids from this breakdown are used by different tissues and organs of the body for various uses.
A lot of factors influence this rate. One of them is protein intake.
So if you’re eating a lot of protein (we’ll discuss what ‘a lot’ means later in this post), your muscle fibers are getting ‘fed,’ which will speed up the rate at which your muscle fibers are growing.
And that rate would be greater than how fast your muscle fibers are broken down. That means more muscle synthesis (or growth).
It all seems straightforward. But there may be more than meets the eye.
Some Benefits of BCAAs for Your Health
Some research suggests that BCAAs, more than any other amino acids, have a unique ability to speed or boost muscle synthesis.
Research also suggests that BCAAs play a role in preventing muscle damage, helping muscle soreness, and improving metabolic health. But how much of this is true? What role do they play in muscle growth and muscle mass? And where do BCAA supplements fit in? Let’s take a closer look.
BCAAs and Muscle Building
The idea that BCAAs can boost muscle building has been suggested through research for decades.
One study in the 80s found that lacking BCAAs or not getting enough of them may prevent muscle growth. However, a study done in rats, which have very different muscle protein synthesis than humans, was not that reliable.
Later research suggested that it was actually due to BCAAs’ ability to increase the rate of muscle building. Scientists state that it is impossible to be muscle-building without getting essential amino acids (all nine of them) from your diet.
But is it any essential amino acid or BCAAs that create an optimal muscle-building state?
In theory, if you only consume BCAAs, six other essential amino acids are still lacking. So your body will not build muscle fibers at a rate faster than it breaks them down. And other parts of your body will pull these amino acids from your muscles for their functions.
- The studies found that consumption of BCAAs alone actually increased muscle breakdown.
- They experimented with different concentrations of BCAAs and found this result accurate even when the concentration of BCAAs was eight times higher than the initial concentration.
- The idea that BCAAs boost muscle building comes from the studies showing that this group of amino acids signals a ‘muscle building’ mode to the cells in muscle tissue when they are first broken down during digestion.
- However, despite this initial signaling, muscle protein synthesis is still reduced when other essential amino acids aren’t included.
- You can only build muscle if you have enough of all essential amino acids to finish the process and create a complete protein for muscle tissues to use. The rest of the body will also use these essential amino acids for their functions instead of pulling from muscle tissue.
- The result is that you’ll have an increased rate of muscle building.
So you need all essential amino acids for muscle growth, and focusing only on BCAAs will have the opposite effect.
BCAAs’ Synergy With Complete Protein Sources
What about combining BCAAs with other proteins or amino acids? That’s where it gets fascinating.
When you consume BCAAs with complete protein sources, they have a synergistic effect, meaning they boost muscle protein synthesis more than if you consume just the complete protein source alone.
One study found that adding five grams of BCAAs to a little over six grams of whey protein (a complete protein source), a total of 11.25 grams of protein, increased muscle protein synthesis to an amount equivalent to 25 grams of whey alone.
It means that what it takes 25 grams of whey to accomplish can be done in just half the amount if you add some additional BCAAs to this protein source.
The bottom line: BCAAs aren’t a special shortcut for building muscle. What’s more important is focusing your diet on complete protein sources to get those essential amino acids in. Then you can add in a few foods rich in BCAAs to boost that muscle-building process.
BCAAs and Muscle Soreness
Experiencing DOMS (also known as muscle fever) and waking up with extremely sore muscles the day after a workout is no fun.
Some say that BCAAs actually reduce this soreness. But the research is mixed, as it suggests that BCAAs can help with muscle soreness if people are consuming protein that is lower than the recommended amount.
So it’s not entirely clear if BCAAs have ‘special properties’ that help with muscle soreness or if it’s just the fact that adding them to lower protein diets increases how much protein someone is getting. And doing so helps them get enough protein which in itself helps reduce muscle soreness.
The study mentioned above controlled for dietary protein intake and found that the group of people who consumed BCAAs reported less muscle soreness 24 and 72 hours after their workout compared to those who did not take BCAAs or took placebos.
There may be one ‘special property’ that makes BCAA especially beneficial for healing muscle soreness, and that’s to do with inflammation. Any intense exercise temporarily increases inflammation in the body, contributing to muscle fever.
Here’s where BCAAs come in. When you take BCAAs after a workout, this group of amino acids can be used by the body to create a molecule called glutamine. Glutamine is taken up by inflammatory cells. And when it is, it helps reduce the inflammation in your body.
Leucine, one of the BCAAs, may be especially effective at reducing inflammation and, in turn, some muscle soreness.
The results, in general, are mixed. Some research suggests getting whole protein sources, while others say specific amino acids that are not BCAAs, like L carnitine, may be the key to reducing muscle fever.
However, when it comes to muscle soreness, there is more to it than simply consuming BCAAs. If you haven't already, check out our in-depth post on foods to improve post-workout muscle fever.
BCAAs and Metabolic Health
Did you know that people who are obese have 20 percent higher levels of BCAAs compared to those who are lean?
What this means is that those who are obese may have more trouble breaking down and using beneficial BCAAs, a process called catabolism, for muscle building and other functions.
What’s even more interesting is that the inability to break down and use BCAAs properly is associated with insulin resistance.
Animal studies show that decreasing BCAAs can improve glucose intolerance. But this isn’t a long-term solution because it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is BCAA catabolism.
Research shows that, when given the proper molecules (such as enzymes) needed to break down these amino acids, BCAA catabolism is improved, and so is insulin sensitivity.
However, when given without consideration as to the person's metabolic health, BCAAs are associated with an increased body percent fat, especially if on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Plus, taking BCAAs when your diet has too much or too little overall protein compared to carbs increases insulin levels.
Legend for Graphs:
P to C ratio = protein to carbohydrates ratio
Plasma insulin = insulin in blood
Again, keep in mind that this is all animal research, so it’s a little hard to know if these results will apply to human beings.
All in all, this suggests that BCAAs aren’t a blanket solution for metabolic health. Nutrition is complicated, and we need to consider a person’s overall diet (including macronutrients) to determine if BCAAs will be helpful. If you work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist, this would be a great conversation with them, as they’d be able to suggest if consuming more BCAAs is the right choice for you.
Do You Need BCAAs for Your Workouts?
No, you don’t need BCAAs for your workouts, but they can be helpful for muscle building and DOMS when part of a protein-rich diet. When it comes to metabolic health, you may want to exercise some caution and discuss with your nutritionist if BCAAs are right for you.
If there’s one thing you can take away from this post, it’s that there is no magic wand to boost your fitness, lose weight, or improve your health.
Consider BCAAs in light of your overall diet and protein intake. Remember that you want to focus more on consuming complete protein sources instead of just BCAAs. And balance that protein with carbs and fat, making sure to focus on the right portions for your needs.
The Recommended Amount of BCAAs
There isn’t a gold standard for how many BCAAs you should be getting. Based on the study done with whey protein and BCAAs, an excellent place to start would be to add a few grams of BCAAs (as a protein powder) to a diet rich in complete protein. But the most effective strategy is to focus on consuming whole food protein sources, as they’re already rich in BCAAs!
When it comes to adequate protein consumption, here’s what the research recommends:
- In general, 0.8 grams of protein/kg of body weight for adults with minimal physical activity (this is the bare minimum, and most people need more than this; see points below)
- For muscle building and strength, 1 gram of protein/kg of body weight for adults with minimal physical activity
- For muscle building and strength, 1.3 grams of protein/kg of body weight for adults with moderate physical activity
- For muscle building and strength, 1.6 grams of protein/kg of body weight for adults with intense physical activity
Complete Protein Sources
Examples of whole food protein sources that are considered complete protein include:
- Poultry (pasture-raised wherever possible)
- Some red meat (pasture-raised wherever possible)
- Organ meats
These all include essential amino acids for maximum muscle growth.
Foods Rich in BCAAs
Examples of BCAA-rich foods include:
- Legumes such as beans and lentils
- Dairy products such as milk and cheese
- Nuts such as pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts (technically considered a legume)
- Complete protein sources
Is There a Best Time to Take BCAAs?
To help reduce muscle soreness, you can consume a meal rich in BCAAs (and complete protein) after your workout. You can also focus on BCAA-rich snacks (such as a handful of nuts and cheese) throughout the day, with a few hours between the snacks for better digestion. Make sure to spread out your protein intake throughout the day.
If you have specific calorie needs, your nutritionist could help you develop snack ideas that fit these needs.
Other Tips to Get the Most Out of BCAAs
Our biggest tip would be consuming BCAAs in complete protein sources and getting enough essential amino acids. That’s how you’ll get that synergistic effect we discussed earlier in the post.
Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation
Should you be consuming a BCAA supplement? Or are they a waste of money? Again, it’s not absolutely necessary. In fact, based on all the sports nutrition research discussed in this post, it’s best to stick to complete protein sources to ensure you’re getting enough essential amino acids.
You can add a BCAA powder to a smoothie alongside a meal that has complete protein to get that synergistic effect. And if a protein supplement isn’t your cup of tea, simply focus on consuming foods that are complete protein sources as they’ll be rich in BCAAs and essential amino acids.
In most (if not all) cases, a diet sufficient in complete protein and essential amino acids (alongside a great muscle-focused training program) is effective at building muscle.
Who Should Not Be Taking BCAAs
You should practice caution and discuss BCAAs with your nutritionist if any of the following applies to you:
- You are trying to improve insulin resistance and/or glucose intolerance
- You are obese and want to lose weight
- You are predisposed to metabolic dysfunction and are concerned about consuming BCAAs because of that
You should avoid taking BCAAs and discuss with your healthcare provider if you have any of the following:
- If you are a child
- If you are breastfeeding
- If you are at risk of, or have, cardiovascular disease
- Kidney disease or malfunction
- Liver disease or malfunction
- Any other condition that requires a low protein diet
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Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.