Supplement Spotlight: Should you take BCAAs?

I get asked by a lot of clients, friends and family what supplements they should take. First of all, I never tell anyone what supplements they should take. I’m a personal trainer, not a nutritionist, dietician or doctor. I don’t “prescribe” supplements or specific diet plans. I do, however, provide information and experience that can help them make the best choices for themselves. So over the coming weeks I’ll spotlight various popular supplements here on the blog, give my experience and provide resources to help educate you. 

First up are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). I won’t get too geeky here, but what are they? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are eight “essential” amino acids and we must consume them from food because the body cannot manufacture them on its own. Among these eight essential amino acids are the three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAAs provide the basis for protein synthesis and energy production and can comprise up to one-third of muscle protein.

Bueller? Bueller?

Ok, here’s the deal, BCAAs, especially leucine, may help: 

  • Build muscle (anabolism)
  • Prevent muscle breakdown (catabolism)
  • Reduce soreness
  • Help burn fat

Thought that might get your attention. Some suggest they can also help with fatigue among athletes but there isn’t enough evidence to go there just yet.

Whenever possible I avoid supplementation and try to get the nutrients I need from food. That’s not always possible or convenient. The following foods are high in BCAAs: whey protein, casein, eggs, soy, milk, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, pork, chicken, cottage cheese and cashews. If you already eat adequate amounts of these foods (i.e. your diet is on point), your fitness program is sound (i.e. you are working a safe and progressed program that is challenging you without overtraining) and you are still not getting the reasonable results you should or are seeing a catabolic effect it would be reasonable to try supplementation.

In my opinion, it doesn’t really matter the brand. I’ve tried all of the following and the results were about the same. I frankly just go to GNC and buy whatever is on sale. I just make sure that the product contains all three of the BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine and valine). I mix 5g with water and sip on it during high intensity (HIIT cardio and/or HEAVY lifting) workouts of an hour or more. I skip it on lighter days and I only drink it during workouts.

In my experience, it helps with soreness and it might be placebo but periods that I use it I do notice better muscle cuts and lower body fat (maybe when I take it I work harder or better). Several of my clients report similar results. So if it’s science or placebo I don’t really care; I like the results.  

Added bonus, science suggests BCAAs help with satiety (making us feel full and stopping us from eating our feelings). I have a nasty sweettooth. Days I take BCAAs I notice my cravings for sweets are noticeably diminished. This may come from more balanced insulin, or it may just be the powered supplement itself is super sweet and puts me off sweets. Again, I don’t care why. It works for me!

Further Reading