Whether you are in the fitness world or not, you’ve probably been exposed to BCAAs, or branched chain amino acids, in some capacity. You may have spotted some buff guys in your gym lugging around a pink liquid or mixing a colored powder into their water. This is because many hardcore bodybuilders, coaches and trainers will swear that the stuff can make or break your fitness routine and goals. However, with the average price of the supplement running about $50 a tub, do BCAAs really live up to the hype? Let’s investigate.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs (also known as branched chain amino acids or just “aminos”) are a sports supplement that typically come in a powder form. They are composed of isolated forms of the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. Why are these so important? Well, science has extensively shown that leucine is the amino acid key to muscle growth and more muscle means more strength and a higher metabolism. So, it benefits you whether you’re looking to lose weight or gain muscle. Isoleucine plays a role in glucose metabolism and helps shuttle glucose to the muscle for recovery after you’ve exhausted all of your muscles’ energy from a workout. Valine is thought to assist both leucine and isoleucine in their roles, but science shows it may not have much of an additional benefit. In food, you can find these amino acids in animal products including meat and dairy. They are especially concentrated in whey protein powder.
What is the claim?
Supplement companies, and that buff trainer in your gym, will try to sell you on BCAAs by telling you that they play a critical role in recovery (allowing you to workout more often) and muscle growth. When the muscle fibers are broken down during resistance exercise, leucine is lost and, if not replaced, will result in muscle loss. This is where BCAAs supposedly come in. Supplement companies will tell you as long as you’re chugging the stuff before, during and after your workout (some say also before bed) you’ll notice radical changes in your body. And, indeed, many studies at first glance have proven that they have this effect. However, let’s look closer at this supposed science.
What does the science say?
One very frequently cited study is one done on elite wrestlers that claimed BCAAs resulted in improved performance and muscle growth. However, if you look closely at this study, each of these athletes weighed an average of 150 pounds each and were only getting about 80 grams of protein from their food. Science says that, if you are engaging in regular, intense resistance training, you need to be eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight for muscle growth and performance and these guys were only eating half of that. So basically, this study tells us that if you aren’t getting enough BCAAs from your food, supplementing can help fill in the gaps. It does not, however, prove that BCAAs alone are responsible for the benefits seen in the athletes. In fact, studies have shown that getting your BCAAs from food has the same and possibly even more benefit than from a supplement.
Are they completely worthless?
Before I send all of the bodybuilders reading this hanging their heads in shame, I do have good news to offer and that is that BCAA supplements do have their place. As stated above, if you are not eating enough protein to support your resistance training (vegans are a great example) BCAAs are perfect for you to still meet your goals and there are plenty of vegan BCAA supplements on the market. BCAAs are also widely used amongst bikini and bodybuilding competitors on a calorie deficit who can’t possibly eat the 1g per pound of body weight, but still training intensely and don’t want to lose their muscle. Finally, taking BCAAs before training fasted protects your muscles from breakdown. Being in a fasted state is defined by not having enough glucose in your system to fuel your exercise. When this happens, your body starts to break down your muscles for energy, which is pretty counterproductive, right? Well, if you can’t get to any food at least 90 minutes before your workout, take BCAA supplements and your body will burn through those instead of using the amino acids in your muscles for fuel. Leucine also has the power to prevent muscle breakdown for added protection.
The bottom line? If your goal is to gain muscle, don’t waste your money on aminos, provided you’re getting enough protein from your diet. However, this supplement does have its place in select situations. Yes, branched chain amino acids have been proven to preserve lean mass, promote muscle growth and enhance recovery. However, whether these BCAAs come from food or supplements doesn’t matter and, as a dietitian, I’m always going to recommend food comes first.
To read much more about fitness and sports nutrition, visit Destini’s blog, The Athlete’s Dietitian.