Why BCAA Supplements Are Old News

Why BCAA Supplements Are Old News

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1

Why BCAA Supplements Are Old News

If you’ve spent any amount of time in a strength training gym or facility, you’ve likely seen someone carrying around an old plastic gallon jug filled with a brightly colored liquid.  Oftentimes the mysterious liquid contained in these repurposed milk bottles are “aminos,” and the consumer is on the hunt for gains. 

For many years branched-chain amino acid products, better known as BCAAs, have been a staple in many gym-goers' supplement stack.  They consist of three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.  These three aminos differ from other amino acids in that their chemical structure contains a “side chain” consisting of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms.  This unique chemical structure allows BCAAs to be broken down directly in muscle tissue, versus having to first pass through the liver, as do other amino acids.   This means muscles can uptake BCAAs and utilize them for protein synthesis and energy production very quickly, and indeed up to one third of muscle protein may be comprised of these three amino acids.

The reported benefits of BCAA supplements include increasing muscle growth, as well as reducing soreness, fatigue, and muscle wasting.  In addition, BCAAs play a big role in the regulation of blood sugar during exercise, which is key to maintaining stable energy levels throughout a training session.  The fact is, significant research exists backing the benefits of consuming BCAAs.

So why then are BCAA supplements old news?  The answer may seem like semantics, but could make a difference when it comes to your quest for gains. 

Leucine, isoleucine and valine are only three of the nine “essential” amino acids, or EAAs.  In the context of diet and nutrition, a nutrient is deemed essential when it is vital to bodily function and the body does not produce it on its own.  Along with the BCAAs, the other essential amino acids that must be consumed via diet are histidine, methionine, lysine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan. 

We already know that amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins (or at least now you do), and when a food contains all nine EAAs it is considered a “complete” protein source.  All animal proteins fall under this category, as do a few plant foods like tofu, edamame and quinoa.  Emerging research suggests that to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, all essential amino acids must be present, not just the BCAAs. 

While it is true that leucine, isoleucine and valine are likely the most “anabolic” amino acids, when we supplement solely with BCAAs we are not fully mirroring natural protein consumption.  As a result, many brands within the sports nutrition supplement industry have begun to ditch BCAA products in favor of EAA products.  Don’t be confused, you’re still getting your BCAAs!  However, in an EAA product the three BCAAs are also joined by their squad of the six other essential amino acids, which the body recognizes as more similar to a complete protein source.

Ultimately, what’s a better option than either BCAA or EAA supplements?  Actual complete protein sources!  This includes whey protein supplements, which naturally contain a complete essential amino acid profile.  That being said, an EAA supplement could be a good option for vegans, vegetarians, lactose-intolerant individuals, or those who are generally struggling to reach their daily protein goals.  While there are additional nutrients present in whey protein or food sources that may provide extra benefits, an EAA supplement can provide some of the raw amino acids needed to boost protein synthesis and therefore muscle growth.

So, the next time you find yourself at the supplement store being recommended a BCAA product, tell them you aren’t interested in the Windows XP of amino acid supplements.  It’s time to upgrade.