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BCAAs: Anabolic or Just Catabolic for Your Wallet?

As Sports and Exercise Science graduate student researchers, group outings usually end in some passionate debate related to exercise or nutrition.  From “What’s the best compound exercise to training abs?” to “Low carbohydrate diet or low fat for weight loss?” to “Crossfit or Bodybuilding?”

By: Kristen Barry, Robert O’Mullan & Nick Voelker

Most of our “debates” (arguments) usually end with a flat, “We will agree to disagree.”  However, recently we found that the importance of branch-chained amino acid (BCAA) supplementation was one issue that kept popping up in conversation. While we may agree BCAA supplementation is influential in maintaining/increasing lean muscle mass, we disagreed on who benefits most from this type of supplementation.

Before deciding to write this article, we turned to our individual social media accounts to ask our friends/relatives/random people we met, their thoughts on using BCAAs. We realized that there are many misunderstandings of BCAA supplementation.  We decided to compile a few of the questions we heard most often:

Are BCAAs supplements needed or just another ploy by nutrition companies to drain our wallets?

Do only athletes need to supplement or can BCAAs benefit the Average?

Then, there was one, “What the hell are BCAA’s?” (shout-out to Grandma for asking the question no one else would…).

For anyone unfamiliar with BCAA’s, we’ll start with a brief overview of what they are and how they work. Dietary nutrition can be broken down into three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.  Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.  Nine of these amino acids are called “essential” amino acids.   “Essential” because we need them to survive, and they can only be obtained through the dietary intake.  Three of the essential amino acids are referred to as branch-chained amino acids due to their unique molecular structure. These three amino acids are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. All three are essential for growth, building muscle, and tissue repair. Foods high in BCAAs include chicken, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk.

Now, you may be thinking, “If we can get BCAAs in our diet, why would we need to supplement?  That sounds like a reasonable question, so we will turn to the research for an answer. Dudgeon, Kelley, and Scheett (2016) found that participants supplementing with BCAAs during 8 weeks of resistance training, on a calorie restricted diet, maintained lean muscle mass while decreasing fat mass.1 The placebo group, however, lost both lean muscle and body mass, leading to speculation that BCAAs can preserve muscle mass for those interested in cutting calories to lose weight.

However, what difference does it make if we preserve muscle mass?  We’re still losing weight, right? Wrong. Muscle is metabolically active tissue.  Muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than fat. Have you ever seen “muscleheads” at restaurants eating 3 days’ worth of calories in one sitting and wonder how they are not fat? Their muscle mass is a big part of the explanation (they may also be blessed with good genetics, which no amount of BCAAs will compensate for).

Studies have suggested that supplementing with BCAAs may also help reduce perceived exertion during exercise2.  They may also lower the rate of soreness post-exercise3, and increase recovery time from muscle fatigue4.  Several studies have also found a reduction in mental fatigue while supplementing with BCAAs2, 5. It’s interesting to note that positive results have been observed for highly trained athletes, moderately trained individuals, as well as completely untrained participants.

BCAAs do seem to have positive effects, but how do you choose one?  There are hundreds of brands on the market. As we would with big ticket items (think cars and electronics), start by doing some research before choosing.

First, think about your goals, your budget, and what type of “exerciser” you are (honestly…). Are you an athlete who wants to stay lean? Do you exercise frequently? Are you trying to build muscle or lose fat? Are you pressed for time and can’t commit to having enough full meals to reach your daily protein requirements? Is your diet hypocaloric (reduced-calorie) or do you eat more calories than you burn?  If you are on a reduced-calorie diet or struggle to eat enough protein, BCAAs may be a good choice to add to your regimen. For someone who eats high protein meals throughout the day or consumes more calories than are burned, BCCAs may help.  Consumption is best if well timed, between meals, spaced far enough apart, but they are not a necessity.

When it comes to pricing BCAAs, the most expensive does not always mean it is the best. It is important to look on the label for the words “GMP” (“Good Manufacturing Practice”).  This is typically found on the back of a product label near the nutrition information. The GMP stamp indicates the product follows specific standards and guidelines during the manufacturing, packing, and labeling of the supplement as sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, look at the breakdown of each BCAA and make sure the product includes three grams of Leucine. This will assure optimal stimulation of protein synthesis necessary for muscle growth.

One final piece of advice for choosing supplements: don’t be afraid to use trial and error! Everyone’s genetic makeup may be slightly different and recommendations can only be made on an individual basis. Pick out a product and give it a try. If you do not see any effects, evaluate your usage, and try another one.

1. Dudgeon, W. D., Kelley, E. P., & Scheett, T. P. (2016). In a single-blind, matched group design: Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13, 1-015-0112-9. eCollection 2016. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0112-9
2. Blomstrand, E., Hassmen, P., Ek, S., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1997). Influence of ingesting a solution of branched-chain amino acids on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 159(1), 41-49. doi:10.1046/j.1365-201X.1997.547327000.x
3. Greer, B. K., Woodard, J. L., White, J. P., Arguello, E. M., & Haymes, E. M. (2007). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 17(6), 595-607.
4. Ohtani, M., Sugita, M., & Maruyama, K. (2006). Amino acid mixture improves training efficiency in athletes. The Journal of Nutrition, 136(2), 538S-543S. doi:136/2/538S
5. Hassmen, P., Blomstrand, E., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1994). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation during 30-km competitive run: Mood and cognitive performance. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 10(5), 405-410.
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