Probably one of the most highly advertised supplements of the modern world. Branch Chain Amino Acids have surely made their mark in the world on fitness. What are they and why do I think they are a waste of money (for most people)?
Let’s start with literally what they are
1. Branch Chain Amino Acids:
2. Essential Amino Acids
Now how does a person obtain BCAAs and EAAs in their diet? Protein! If you consume any animal protein (fish, chicken, pork, beef, etc) you will have consumed all of the BCAAs and EAAs in one nice package. They are also found in certain vegetables, but are not commonly found all together in a single vegetable protein source like they are in animal proteins.
Research has shown that if you’re consuming adequate protein in a day, consuming more BCAAs throughout the day doesn’t provide you with ANY additional benefits. Why? Well, because if you are already eating enough protein, adding more of a few amino acids that make up protein doesn’t give you anything you don’t already have.
How much protein would you have to consume to nullify the effects of BCAAs? Approximately 0.6-1g of protein per pound of body weight should do the trick. This means if you weigh 150lbs and consume 150g of protein in a day, adding additional BCAAs and EAAs to your diet will not provide you with further benefits. If you’re a science and data nerd like me check out this study from 2019 that highlights what I’m talking about.
Essentially, for those that didn’t want to read it, a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-groups design with twenty-four healthy individuals that had not exercised more than twice a week for 6 months prior were split into two groups: one control and one BCAA.
They perform leg press and hack squat and see if supplementing with BCAAs had any positive effect on muscle soreness and recovery. “Contrary to our hypothesis, we found no evidence indicating that BCAA supplementation could alleviate the alterations of muscle soreness and function.” and then my favorite quote:
“We cannot rule out the possibility that daily protein intake (~ 1.5 g/kg/day) might have been sufficient to maximize muscle recovery in our participants, masking the BCAA effects. The analysis of daily nutritional intake reinforces the internal validity of our study compared to previous studies in this area, since most studies that found positive effects of BCAA on muscle recovery markers did not analyze the participants’ protein intake, precluding to determine whether the effects of BCAA supplementation were independent of the daily protein intake.”
If you skipped that, essentially this study actually considered protein intake and because of that, they showed that it is possible that adequate protein masked the effects of BCAAs.
When I did the nitty gritty research for my podcast episode about this (check out Bone Apple Tea episode 13) one of the things we did was look up companies that sell BCAAs and see what they are using to support their claims of why they’re good.
Upon looking at the studies one of them starved its participants and then fed them either sugar packets or BCAAs and then checked to see who was less sore after lifting...well duh. Of course in a depleted state having just part of a protein complex will aid your muscle recovery compared to just carbs on their own.
However, this seemed very shady to me as this type of study didn’t seem applicable to anyone who would read it, but it doesn’t stop companies from using that study to justify selling you tasty BCAA powder!
Here’s that study:
Look, it seems as though people who run extreme distances like marathoners may have some benefits with this kind of supplementation, but if you’re not that person on that day, then I’d say skip the BCAAs and just eat protein.
Your protein shake has all the amino acids and so do your animal proteins. If you are vegan it may also help you, but only if you aren’t getting your proper intake of complete proteins!
So again, skip the BCAAs and get back to eating real food.
Certified Personal Trainer
University of Connecticut for Biomedical Engineering