BCAAs, also known as “branch-chain amino acids” are three essential amino acids (1) leucine, (2) isoleucine, and (3) valine, each of which has unique properties.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein; they are chemical compounds that, when linked together, form proteins. When protein is ingested, our bodies break it down into amino acids before it’s absorbed into the bloodstream and used by the body.
Of the 20 amino acids our body uses, 11 are non-essential, meaning they do not need to be directly consumed to be formed. On the other hand, there are 9 essential amino acids – 3 of which are BCAAs – that the body cannot make, and thus must be supplied by food.
The reason BCAA supplements are important is because they are the only amino acids which are not metabolized by the liver, making them directly available to muscle tissues, where they act in a number of positive ways.
Meat and whey protein contain high concentrations of BCAAs. And if you’re trying to watch your weight, one of the benefits of using supplementation versus whole foods is that the benefits of BCAAs can be realized without the consumption of extra calories. Additionally, particularly around workouts, supplementing with BCAAs versus eating whole proteins keeps blood flow in the working muscles and away from the GI tract. When you ingest intact protein, you divert blood to the gut to aid in digestion.
As of now, until that research is available, and given what we do know about the other benefits of BCAA supplementation, I am still recommending a mix of BCAAs, though perhaps with a higher percentage of leucine.1 It should be noted that mTOR activation has also been implicated in the proliferation of cancer cells.2 As with any supplement, the risks should be weighed against the benefits before a decision is made whether to use it.
Supplementation, in many ways, is more important for the older population than it is for younger people. Specifically, mTOR activation by leucine is decreased in advanced ages. That, coupled with the metabolic slowdown that occurs with aging and the need to avoid excess calories which can lead to fat accumulation, makes leucine-rich BCAA supplementation a very good idea in older people.
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Again, nothing can replace real food and I am not suggesting that BCAAs are necessary for fat loss and muscle gain. However, given how hard it is to optimize body composition, it is worthwhile to look at BCAAs as a possible part of a healthy lifestyle plan.