BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) have long been promoted as a muscle building and performance enhancing supplement.
BCAAs have become increasingly popular over the years and are a staple in most supplement stacks.
Unfortunately for the BCAA guzzlers out there, research has yet to demonstrate a clear, significant benefit of why you would actually need to take them in the first place.
If you’re on board the supplement hype train and shelling out your hard earned dough on BCAAs, here are 9 solid reasons why you might want to stop.
1. You’re already getting enough
What most people don’t realize is that BCAAs are abundantly found in food. Most protein rich foods have quite a high percentage (15-25%) of BCAAs already.
– 30 g of protein powder usually provides 5.5 g
– 5 whole eggs have 6.5 g
– 150 g of wild salmon has 5.5 g
– 1 cup of peanuts have 6.2
– 150 g of canned tuna has 5 g
– 1 cup of cottage cheese has 6.1 g
– 1 cup of rice and lentils has 5.5 g
– ½ cup of parmesan cheese has 6 g
Bet you didn’t know that, did you? So the main question is, given that you’re already going to be eating a lot anyway, will the extra scoop or two you’re adding to your shake make any difference?
2. Complete Proteins Have All The Amino Acids (Including BCAAs)
You only need around 2-4 g of Leucine (one of the three BCAAs) to kick start the muscle building and repairing process. This is called ‘muscle protein synthesis’. Thankfully, it can easily be achieved from whole foods (or protein supplements). In fact, consuming a whole protein source will not only provide you BCAAs but also EAAs (Essential Amino Acids) and other nutrients too. Food 1, supplements 0.
For example, whey protein has several beneficial compounds. It contains immunoglobins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidas and glycomacropeptide. These are not present in BCAA supplements. Likewise, eggs and sea animals are rich in zoo-nutrients like creatine, carnitine and taurine, not to mention Omega 3 fatty acids which all have beneficial properties.
In other words, Whole Proteins = BCAAs + EAAs + Other Nutrients = More Benefits.
3. BCAAs seem to work best in the presence of other EAAs
Several studies have shown that muscle protein synthesis is most efficient when the body is supplied with a all of the amino acids. Not just the BCAAs. It also appears that amino acids in their free form, like when you take a supplement, are not as efficiently used by the body compared to the amino acids from whole proteins.
Despite the popularity of BCAA supplements we find shockingly little evidence for their efficacy in promoting MPS or lean mass gains ….
4. BCAAs are not calorie free
BCAAs are one of the most calorie dense amino acids out there! If you’re consuming 10 g of BCAAs, that’s about 63 calories that you didn’t know about. Do this before and after a workout 4x per week and that’s an extra 504 calories!
However, supplement companies don’t list the energy content on the label of BCAA products. So it is commonly assumed that BCAAs are calorie free. Here is the label of a popular BCAA supplement, Scivation Xtend.
The reason manufacturers can get away with this is because the governmental food authorities do not consider products containing individual amino acids as “protein containing”.
The “zero calorie” myth is a large reason why many people use BCAAs while performing any form of fasted cardio.
The rationale behind doing fasted cardio while consuming BCAAs is to preserve muscle mass whilst creating a favourable environment for fat loss. However, research has shown there to be no difference on body composition between doing cardio fasted or after eating.
5. BCAAs can interfere with exercise performance
It’s long been suggested that BCAAs can improve performance. This is because they inhibit the uptake of other amino acids like Tryptophan and Tyrosine.
Although this is a may seem to be a good thing because it can reduce fatigue by decreasing Serotonin (a chemical produced by your body which can stimulate parts of your brain that help you to sleep), it’s not.
Low Serotonin concentrations are also associated with grumpiness (you in a bad mood or something mate?) BCAAs can also diminish catecholamine production which can reduce physical performance in the gym.
6. BCAAs can make you hungry
If you’re on a diet, BCAAs don’t seem like a great option either. They can actually stimulate your appetite. As mentioned in the last point, BCAAs compete with Tryptophan for entry into the brain thereby reducing Serotonin production.
Since Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can help you to feel full, it’s thought that BCAAs can therefore make you hugry. This is further driven by the fact that BCAAs have been successfully used in hospitals to treat loss of appetite, anorexia and muscle wastage.
So if you’re already hungry on a cut, BCAAs might just make you feel a little more miserable. However, protein from whole sources will do they opposite – they are satiating and help you to feel full. Another win for the whole proteins.
7. Protein from whole foods is cheaper and tastier
BCAAs from whole protein sources are often cheaper on a gram per gram basis. For example, a serving of Scivation Xtend costs £0.85 whereas a serving of The Protein Works Whey Protein costs only £0.24. Bargain.
Whole protein sources also happen to be a lot tastier. So save your money and give those taste buds some love.
8. BCAAs are associated with an increased risk of diabetes
Numerous publications in the scientific literature indicate a strong association between high BCAA intake (and high BCAA plasma levels) and increased diabetes risk, impaired fasting glucose, and insulin resistance.
The reason for this association is still not fully understood. Given that a majority of these studies are observational in nature, you may want to take these findings with a grain of salt.
But if you are someone who is already following a high protein diet and has a family history of diabetes, this is yet another reason to be vary of BCAA supplementation.
9. There isn’t enough evidence full stop.
The bottom line is that there are a tonne of studies that show BCAAs aren’t going to do squat for your squats.
French researchers showed that BCAA supplementation on an energy restricted high protein diet had no beneficial effects on muscle mass, fat loss, aerobic and anaerobic performance in a group of 25 competitive wrestlers.
A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that when combined with heavy resistance training for eight weeks, 9 g/day of BCAA supplementation, half given 30 minutes before and after exercise, had no beneficial effects on body composition and muscle performance.
Researchers in Mississippi showed that in healthy, resistance-trained males BCAAs did not improve muscle thickness, performance, perceived soreness and weakness, or markers of muscle damage.
The studies go on and on…
Wait, I read this study that showed BCAAs were legit…
When folks who advocate BCAAs (the bros) are challenged about their recommendations, they will often present the following two studies to support their case:
In 2009, Jim Stoppani showed staggering results for BCAA supplementation. In just 8 weeks, experienced resistance trained athletes gained 4 kg of muscle mass and dropped their body fat percentage from 9% to 7%.
Holy guacamole batman.
However, suffice to say, there were a couple of problems with these results….
Firstly, this study was funded by Scivation, a supplement company best known for its BCAA product, Xtend.
But more importantly, the study never made it through peer review. The paper was never accepted for publication in a scientific journal.
Another study, Dudgeon (2016), also funded by Scivation showed that combined with resistance exercise, BCAA supplementation preserved muscle mass and reduced fat mass on an energy restricted diet.
In a letter to the editor, Dieter, Schoenfeld and Aragon (2016) responded to these findings by highlighting some grave errors made by the authors.
Despite this, I’m sure someone reading this will desperately proclaim – “But BCAAs work for me!”
When in doubt, listen to this man
In the wise words of Alan Aragon:
I base all of my beliefs and recommendations on scientific evidence, not subjective placebo and marketing driven testimony. You can be sure that if someone believes (by whatever means it took to convince him) that extra BCAA will work, it will. However, it’s the belief that’s the active agent, not the BCAA. You can create the same effect by convincing someone that a lucky rabbit’s foot in his right pocket will increase his lifting strength. If the person is truly convinced or even if the person has deeply vested hopes in the product or protocol, it indeed will work. The mind has powerful effects on the body. It always has and always will.
The Bottom Line
Save your cash.
The only people who may benefit from BCAAs are those who do not get enough high quality protein (e.g. vegans). Outside of this, BCAA supplementation on top of a sufficient protein intake is useless.