The workout supplement and protein supplement is a multibillion dollar industry right now. Chances are, if you’ve been on the fitness side of the internet, you’ve probably heard of BCAAs and all the magic that they give.
BCAAs, or branched chain amino acids, are part of the 20 amino acids your body uses, 9 of which are considered essential amino acids (EAAs). Leucine, Valine, and Isoleucine are the most well-known EAAs. This might get confusing, but all BCAAs are EAAs, but not all EAAs are BCAAs. EAAs are essential proteins, which means they can’t be produced by your body, and as such must be obtained from food. What some people forget is that you can obtain BCAAs from your regular diet just from eating your normal recommended amount of protein, and for most, dishing out the extra cash for another supplement is not necessary.
BCAA supplements are becoming more mainstream, and that’s because they have a lot of hype in their claims. They’re even “approved” by many mainstream health websites and blogs, who tend to focus on their claims, and choosing to ignore more recent evidence that they might not stack up as well as many may think.
BCAA supplements are claimed to be anabolic and increase muscle growth, improve stamina, performance, and recovery, burn fat, and even improve liver disease. Along with many other claims that weak or inadequate research, such as boosting immune system and improving cognitive function.
Performance, Stamina, Recovery
What a lot of people like about BCAAs is that they’re marketed to be consumed (usually in liquid form, or a powder that you add to liquid) before, during, and after your workouts. If you glance around your gym, you might even notice a shaker bottle with something fruity looking in it. Those are probably BCAAs. Some suggest that ingesting protein during exercise improves exercise performance for prolonged workouts. When working out for time rather than exhaustion, a recent study which investigated the impact of protein ingestion during time trial exercise showed that there were no ergogenic (performance, stamina, or recovery) benefits of protein ingestion compared with ample amounts of carbs only. An earlier study also found that BCAA ingestion does not affect fatigue or provide any additional benefits during prolonged exercise versus ingesting carbs alone.
Another claim that people went wild with is that BCAAs are anabolic. So here’s where the confusion lies. BCAA do stimulate the mTOR pathway (the molecular pathway that “activates” MPS (muscle protein synthesis), but the problem lies that BCAA supplements do not contain all of the other EAAs, which serve as the building blocks to make new proteins, are not available when MPS is stimulated. So BCAA supplements do activate MPS, but they cannot utilize it fully. However, your traditional whey protein shake does contain all EAAs, so they whey protein can utilize the MPS. Essentially, there are insufficient EAA in BCAAA to supply the MPS and do half as good a job at being anabolic as whey protein does. Bottom line here: whey is the way.
If you need to hear more about MPS to convince you, a few studies in humans have actually reported decreases in MPS after intake of BCAAs rather than increases.
Listen, if you want to spend more money on another supplement that doesn’t do what it claims, but tastes sort of good, be my guest. However, if you’re looking for the actual benefits, well you can get that from the proteins you regularly eat and drink. Chicken, steak, seafood, whey protein, or whatever you like. It does a better job and saves you money. If you’re doing all of that, and just want to “treat yo self” with a tasty drink, well BCAAs are sold practically everywhere now.