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.
5 BCAA Supplement Benefits
- BCAAs enhance protein synthesis. There is a gene in muscle cells called mTOR which essentially “turns on” muscle protein synthesis. Ingestion of BCAAs, particularly leucine, activates this pathway and leads to increased muscle protein formation. This begs the question “Why take all 3 BCAAs when leucine alone stimulates protein synthesis?” Since discovery of this pathway is still relatively recent, there is not a lot of research looking at the benefits of BCAA supplementation versus leucine supplementation alone, despite a large body of research supporting the anabolic properties of BCAAs and leucine alone (just not head-to-head).
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.
- BCAAs support fat loss. There have been a number of studies which show BCAA intake correlates to decreased obesity rates. One large study examined over 4000 people and found that those with the highest intake of BCAAs had the lowest bodyweights.3 It is important to understand that correlation doesn’t mean causation. Still, the results are pretty convincing.
- BCAAs lessen the loss of lean body mass. BCAAs are well-known to be anti-catabolic, and this is especially important to anyone who is trying to lose body fat, as lean mass loss is a very real risk when a person is in a calorie-restricted state.
- BCAAs combat age-related decreases in muscle mass. The process by which they accomplish this task is outlined in the first entry of this list. Still, its implication in the elderly warrants repeating. Many older individuals look at supplementation in general as something “young guys and bodybuilders do.” This is the wrong way to look at things.
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.
- BCAAs may offer other beneficial effects. BCAAs might enhance brain function, contribute to a more positive mood, and help regulate blood sugar. When viewed in light of the other known benefits, BCAAs should be near the top of any supplement regimen list.
BCAA Supplement Recommendations
Here are my recommended BCAA supplements. BCAA Keto is in tablet form and GNC RapidDrive BCAA 5000 (affiliate link) is a powder form of BCAAs:
GNC RapidDrive BCAA 5000
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.
- Most research on BCAAs has been done of formulas containing 25% isoleucine, 25% valine and 50% leucine. Although the research is by no means definitive, it appears as though maximum mTOR stimulation occurs with leucine doses of at least 3 grams. Thus, depending on total amount of BCAA supplementation a person wants to use, a more leucine-rich formula may be a better choice if lower total dosage is desired. ↩
- Guertin DA, Sabatini DM. Defining the role of mTOR in cancer. Cancer Cell. 2007;12(1):9-22. ↩
- Qin LQ, Xun P, Bujnowski D, et al. Higher branched-chain amino acid intake is associated with a lower prevalence of being overweight or obese in middle-aged East Asian and Western adults. J Nutr. 2011;141(2):249-54. ↩
Great article. So how might these supplements be taken in a fat loss phase, say? And are there foods that are rich in BCAAs? Would those foods compare in BCAA content to a serving of the supplement?
Thanks, Nick. During fat loss, I would recommend 3-5 grams with meals and before/during workouts. If you are taking in over 30 grams of whey post workout, they are probably not a necessary addition to the protein. Also, it makes sense to take around 5 grams between meals, as their known anti-catabolic propertied will lessen muscle loss in the face of a negative calorie balance.
Regarding food and BCAAs, if the goal is fat loss you can get much more bang for your buck using supplementation as the positive effects are significant and the calorie content of BCAAs is low.
Thanks so much!
And how often would you recommend taking them? Just around a workout? On rest days?
it all depends but most BCAAs sold have a recommendation for use in the leaflets inside.
I normally use mine when im on holiday as my metabolism is very high and i lose a lot of weight if im not working out.
It has actually helped me to hold on to muscle mass from personal experience if im not working out.
I do take them on rest days between meals, but to be transparent they are part of an essential amino acid mixture I created. Since head to head research between essential aminos and BCAAs in lacking, I think of it as hedging my bets.
What is the correct dosage, i.e., how many grams should one take per kilogram of bodyweight? Thank you.
John- It really depends on what the rest of your nutrition plans looks like. For example, if you are eating 50 grams of protein every 2 hours, supplementing with BCAAs at all is probably unnecessary. During calorie restriction, you will get benefits from higher doses. As a general rule, assuming you are looking to build maximum muscle and lose body fat, I think it makes sense to use 5-10 grams between meals (provided you are spacing meals beyond 2-3 hours), ensuring at least 3 grams of leucine per dose and 5 grams total with meals. Again, the research is certainly not conclusive regarding optimal dose but hopefully this will give you some sort of framework (assuming your kidneys are healthy).
Found your blog by searching for this phrase “BCAA Supplement Benefits and picks.”
It appears that your blog is aimed at male readers. Are these also applicable for women?
Jen, I’ve been following this blog for a year now and I am female. I wouldn’t say the blog is aimed at male readers. Look around as there is some great stuff here and the authors make sure to stay realistic. Note even this blog cites research. I have found this site to be valuable in keeping up on what is going on in the field amongst all the crap/pseudoscience out there.
Thanks for the note, Kristin. @Jen – we make most of the articles gender neutral.
I am sorry the article came across that way. BCAAs certainly benefit women and should be used by anyone who works out and has healthy kidneys.
very useful article
just wanted to ask, I’m consuming Whey protein isolates about 2-3 scopes a day
and consuming fair amount of meats
is it necessary to add BCAA to the mix , or Whey protein is enough ?
Thanks, Joe. I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to this question. You are probably getting enough BCAAs through your other supplementation, but since there are essentially no risks in supplementation for a healthy person, it makes sense to add them to your arsenal. Hope this helps.
I’m a type 1 diabetic, and while my kidney function is completely healthy, I’m always more than a bit wary of increasing my protein consumption. While I’ll certainly consult my nephrologist before making any dietary changes, what’s your opinion on BCAA consumption and kidney health, in general? Are there alternatives that folks who might either have kidney trouble or, like me, want to take every precaution against developing it in the future? Thanks!
Using BCAAs (or even better, all essential amino acids) will decrease the amount of total protein needed per day, thus decreasing the burden on the kidneys. However, there is no evidence high protein consumption damages healthy kidneys. Research only shows it can hasten progression of pre-existing kidney disease. So obviously check with your nephrologist but I don’t see a problem provided your kidney function is closely followed (i.e. frequent microalbumin to creatinine ratios). Again, though, I am not a kidney doctor and this is not meant as medical advice. I hope this helps.
Thanks for the information! This is very helpful. My nephrologist said to “go for it” and that we’ll just keep monitoring as we always have.
That’s my kind of nephrologist!