BCAAs Not Worth the Investment

I’ve just gotten back from a family vacation. And it wasn’t just Alexandra, the girls and I but my parents, siblings and their kids as well. All in there was 24 of us getting together for a few days in Washington and Idaho.

We were there to go to a theme park and waterslides for a few days. At the end of the days we would gather at a restaurant to recount stories and review pictures from our adventures.

Next door to one of the restaurants we were going to was a supplement store. And in the window of this supplement store was a cut out a fitness model advertising a particular supplement. In this case the supplement was branched chain amino acids or BCAAs as they’re more commonly called.

Before we carry on it’s important to explain what a BCAA is. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Sometimes amino acids are thought of as beads on a string. Which amino acids are present and in which order is part of what determines which protein it will be.

Three amino acids in particular have functional groups referred to as ‘branched’ to help distinguish them from other amino acids. These amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine.

The branched chain amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine.

The branched chain amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine. Notice the part in blue is the same for all, only the part in green is different.

And for a while it was believed that BCAAs, or even more specifically leucine, was the trigger for protein synthesis. So for someone looking to add some lean mass, get stronger or tone you would need to consume more protein. You could consume 20 grams of whey protein, or 6 grams of BCAAs or 2 grams of leucine. All were thought to be equivalent in terms of stimulating the anabolic trigger for muscular growth.

More recently we’ve learned however that this isn’t the case.

A recent study (1) had participants ingest 5.6 grams of BCAAs immediately following a resistance training session. And while they researchers did see an increase in muscle protein synthesis, it was about half of what would be expected from consuming a whey protein drink.

So it seems as though BCAAs may not be all they’re cracked up to be. If you were giving up half your results simply by drinking BCAAs instead of whey protein you’d want to stop that asap.

Ultimately protein synthesis comes down to a requirement for there be a net positive in the amino acid pool. If there is a net negative, i.e. protein is being broken down at a greater rate than amino acids are being assembled, than muscular growth cannot take place. And the above study shows it is enhanced more by drinking whey than BCAAs.

In the end however your body needs a surplus of amino acids and the best source is whole food proteins. Get as much of your protein from food first than if still deficient look to add a whey protein shake to top you up. Remember the definition of the word is in addition to, not in place of.

The other advantages of eating whole food proteins first is that you may be able to do so at a better value and the reduced probability of a banned substance in whole food versus a supplement.

Reference

  1. Jackman SR, Witard OC, Phip A, Wallis GC, Baar K, Tipton KD. 2017. Branched-chain amino acid ingestion stimulates muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance exercise in humans. Front Physiol. 6(7)390.

 

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