Are BCAAs Worth It?

The business of nutritional supplements has developed into a multi-million dollar industry over the last few decades. BCCAs (basic chain amino acids) are at the top of the most commonly purchased supplements available. Well trusted brands and companies have attempted to capitalize on the recent popularity of BCAA supplements. They have done an amazing job

Proponents of BCAA supplements claim that their use can improve muscle growth, reduce the breakdown of muscle during a calorie restricted diet, reduce muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery after a workout. This article will review the available research and investigate whether these claims are actually true.

What are BCAA’s?

Before we discuss whether BCAAs are useful or not, it will help to know what exactly they are and what their purpose is. Amino acids are considered the building blocks of protein. Without them, protein wouldn’t exist. When protein is ingested, it is broken down by the digestive process into amino acids. These can then be reassembled by the body to create different proteins depending on the combination and sequence of amino acids used.

There are 20 different amino acids that exist. Eleven of them can be created in the cells of the body, but the other nine amino acids are essential. This means that the body cannot make them on its own and they must be obtained from the diet.

Three of the essential amino acids, isoleucine, leucine, and valine are classified as BCAAs. These amino acids have branched chains which make them different in their structure compared with others. Because these amino acids differ in their chemical structure, they are able to bypass the normal digestive process and are quickly available for use in the muscle. They are metabolized in the muscle instead of the liver like the other amino acids and therefore are readily available for energy during or after exercise. Because of their immediate access and use in muscle, BCAAs are thought to help prevent muscle loss, build muscle, prevent muscle soreness, reduce fatigue, and improve exercise performance among a number of other claims not listed here.

Does the Evidence support supplementing with bcaa’s?

A number of studies have suggested that Branch chain amino acids may be beneficial in a number of different situations supporting the claims listed above.

They have the potential to:

  1. Reduce fatigue during exercise
  2. Reduce muscle soreness after intense exercise
  3. Help build muscle
  4. Maintain muscle mass during a calorie restricted diet

Here’s the thing, at the surface these studies look great and can be used to sell, promote, and suggest that BCAA supplementation is effective.

The problem is that you can find results of a study to back and support almost anything you want it to. There is a big difference between taking studies at face value and actually critically reviewing the studies.

Let’s take this study for example. This has been used by a number of BCAA supporters to back their claims that they are effective.

A group of wrestlers were put on a calorie restricted diet. One group consumed up to 50 grams of BCAAs daily. This group lost more fat and preserved more muscle mass in the process. Sounds great right? Here’s what you aren’t told about the study. These wrestlers at a weight of around 150 pounds were only consuming 80 grams of protein per day. This is well below the amount needed to preserve muscle mass in a calorie deficit. Would the same result have been true if these individuals were consuming enough protein in their diet?

It isn’t hard to consume enough BCAAs from food. They along with other amino acids are abundant in our diet already and can be found in:

  • Whey, Milk, and Soy proteins
  • Beef, Chicken, Fish, and Eggs
  • Lentils, Lima beans, and Garbanzo beans
  • Whole wheat and Brown rice
  • Almonds, Cashews, and Pumpkin seeds

What has the research found?

Here’s a study that compared two groups of young men. One group received BCAA supplements after their workout and the other group received a placebo (in other words, nothing). Both groups performed the same resistance training program and their dietary intake was the same. Both groups were consuming an adequate amount of protein for building muscle during a resistance training program. This left supplementation with BCAAs the only difference between the two. The results found that as long as protein intake was adequate, unlike our study with the wrestlers above, there was no difference in muscle size or strength with or without BCAAs at the end of the 8 week training program.

These findings were confirmed by another study that found that supplementing with BCAAs produces no additional muscle gain or fat loss.

A review of all the available research up until 2017 came to the same conclusion. The authors are quoted below:

” We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted. “

If you’re not convinced yet……. keep reading.

Whey protein powders are even more popular than BCAAs for supplementation following a workout. One of my favorite studies compared the differences between whey alone or whey taken with BCAAs.

One group received 25 grams of whey protein following their workouts. The other two groups received an inferior dose of whey, 6.25g, and amino acids. The results found that both resulted in muscle protein synthesis to an equal degree but only the group consuming 25 grams of whey protein sustained the rate of muscle protein synthesis after the workout. The findings suggest that creation of new muscle is most effective when whey protein is consumed at the recommended doses. The findings support our initial study we reviewed with the wrestlers. If you are not consuming enough protein in your diet, supplementation of BCAAs or amino acids may help.

We know that protein and muscle is not created from one, two, or even three basic chain amino acids. The creation of these proteins that build muscle require nearly all of the amino acids in different combinations and sequences. Whey contains all the amino acids needed for protein creation and muscle growth whereas BCAAs contain only 3. In fact, one study found that consuming a complete essential amino acid supplement outperformed supplementation with BCAAs alone.

Some may consider BCAAs like a multi-vitamin. An insurance policy per se. Maybe it’s better to be safe than sorry and supplement with BCAAs just in case you don’t get enough in your diet.

A couple of studies may have you question that kind of thinking. The studies have found that supplementing with BCAAs may actually increase insulin resistance making you at higher risk for developing diabetes.

Another study found that BCAA supplementation may actually increase your appetite. Not exactly what you want if you’re trying to lose fat and maintain muscle mass.

One last thing I want to mention here. Some people claim that BCAAs are helpful if they are taken during fasted training because they help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue.

Let me make one thing clear. Despite what your label says on your BCAA supplement- THEY ARE NOT ZERO CALORIES. In fact, an analysis of BCAAs determined that one gram is equivalent to approximately 4 calories. This is almost identical to the calorie content of protein and carbohydrates. Surprise, every time you sip on that 5 or 10 grams of BCAAs you are no longer in a fasted state.

The FDA regulations state that supplement manufacturers can’t declare the protein content of a product when this only contains individual amino acids. Therefore, they can list their BCAA supplement as zero calories when in fact this isn’t true.

It really doesn’t matter anyways because it has been proven that fasted cardio is no better than fed cardio for fat loss.

The Takeaway

  • Supplementation with BCAAs can be helpful if you are not consuming enough protein in your daily diet
  • When protein is sufficient, supplementing with BCAAs provides no additional benefits
  • You are better off spending your money on high quality whey protein instead of BCAAs. Click here for the best whey protein available and the one I use.

I’m going to end this with a quote I stole from Alan Aragon Who stole it from Kevin Finn

“Taking BCAA’s is like running the sprinklers when it’s raining out.”

Kevin Finn

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