In typical Dr. Neal fashion, I will start from the beginning just to make sure we all understand what branched chain amino acids are. Then I will get into whether they are useful or not.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was at the gym, I heard a couple of gentlemen discussing BCAAs. One of them was saying: “Dude, you’ve gotta start taking branched chain amino acids. They’ve helped me improve my strength so much and my partner is noticing how much more ripped I am.” His buddy then asked, “So, which ones are you taking?” He replied, “I take creatine, taurine, and CLA.
Unfortunately, this individual wasn’t quite sure what BCAAs are. Creatine, for example, is not a branched chain amino acid. Taurine isn’t either. And CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is a fat.
Let’s start by defining what BCAAs are.
What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids?
The branched chain amino acids include proteins that the body cannot create on its own. Our bodies are pretty good at mixing and matching the proteins in some of the foods we eat to support optimal growth and development, but there are some proteins the body cannot make on its own. These include specific proteins called leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These 3 amino acids (or proteins–same thing) are types of BCAAs.
Why Are They Called Branched Chain Amino Acids?
It’s because if you were to look at these amino acids under a microscope, you would see that their chemical structure makes it look like they have these branches growing out from the center (or “trunk” ) of the molecule. In fact, BCAAs make up about a third of our skeletal muscle. So not only are our muscles composed of BCAAs, but our bodies aren’t able to produce them on their own. No wonder fitness enthusiasts are talking about supplementing with this stuff! Those that supplement with BCAAs often believe that they are preventing muscle breakdown and improving their athletic performance.
Do Branched Chain Amino Acids Improve Performance?
Sadly, the research is inconclusive. Some human studies have found it helps to prevent muscle breakdown and improve athletic performance… others not so much. Some researchers believe that it’s not about the total amount of BCAAs consumed, but that it in order for them to be most effective, you need the right ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The optimal ratio is still being studied, but some believe a ratio of 2:1:1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine) is best. But a few weeks back during another Q&A, I mentioned that some researchers are finding that consuming leucine after a workout may be best.
Should You Take a BCAA Supplement?
For most, taking a BCAA supplement is relatively safe and has minimal side effects. But we still don’t know what the ideal dosage is. Some think that 1-5 grams of BCAAs is enough. However, when randomly testing some of the products available on the market, we’re finding that some of them don’t contain the amount of amino acids they claim. Even worse, some don’t have any of the branched chain varieties at all. Instead, they use fillers. Like I always say, be sure to do your due diligence and research any and all supplements are you currently taking or are planning on taking. A great resource is ConsumerLab.com.
Also, keep in mind that the body can only absorb about 20 grams of protein at a time. If you are consuming more than that, especially through supplements, your body won’t use it and will either excrete it through your urine, or convert it to fat.
The good news is: you can also find BCAAs in the many protein-rich foods we commonly consume: dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, legumes, and fish. And the added bonus is that the proteins found in these foods are easily absorbed and utilized by the body!