BCAA Supplements: Do You Need Them?

The Supplement Industry

As of 2016, the supplement industry was worth over $121.6 billion dollars. With a such a staggering figure, one might wonder how the industry got so massive. After giving it a moment’s thought, a couple idea’s spring to mind.

The simplest explanation? Supplements offer a shortcut. Depending on the pill, you’re sold a quick fix solution to almost any problem. Overweight? Here’s a fat burner. Irregular digestion? Have a gummy bear. Tired for the gym? Take a pre-workout.

But when walking through your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe it’s easy to forget that there’s a natural solution to most of your health related problems. If you’re overweight, you can form better dietary habits and exercise regiments. If digestion is giving you trouble, you can eat wholesome foods while skipping the congesting additives. Too tired for the gym? Make sure to get more sleep.

If you’re overweight, you can form better dietary habits and exercise regiments. If digestion is giving you trouble, you can eat wholesome foods while skipping the congesting additives. Too tired for the gym? Make sure to get more sleep.

Granted these are remedies that assume there aren’t deeper problems. And these solutions are also easier said than done.

It’s simple enough on paper, but when factoring in other aspects of daily life, carrying through these fixes becomes more burdensome than it looked at first. Consequently, it’s easy to see why people turn to supplements. Between your significant other, your work, your family, and anything else that life throws your

Between your significant other, your work, your family, and anything else that life throws your way can you blame yourself for skipping the extra work and taking a pill instead? Of course not.

That’s partly why supplements are so popular, not only do they offer solutions, they offer quick ones.

But for most supplementation stops at “essential” vitamins and fish oils. Their habits are hardly dangerous, in fact, they’re encouraged in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. So is it any surprise that an industry that provides harmless, quick, inexpensive, and effortless remedies worth $121.6 billion dollars?

Fitness Supplements

But the supplement industry isn’t one dimensional, it didn’t reach its size from selling fish oils and vitamins. As with most successful ventures, companies began expanding their product lines and diversifying their range. New companies vying for a piece of the quick fix rush explored new niches and markets.

Naturally, the supplement industry expanded its horizons and began developing products for a different customer, the fitness enthusiast.

Unlike their bare minimum “essential” vitamins consuming counterpart, gym goers forge a step ahead. They do devote time to the longer term remedies others forego. And while this makes them impervious to the draw of quick fix vitamins, it renders them susceptible to more nuanced products.

Fitness enthusiasts, bodybuilders, and athletes, in general, are more likely to look after their diet and track their micro and macronutrient intake. Hence, it’s no surprise that this demographic strives for squeeze more out of their hard work at the gym and in the kitchen, a trait makes them an easy target for the supplement industry.

What Are BCAA Supplements?

There’s a bevy of products for the gym enthusiast. Ranging from plant extracts to creatine and protein products, your local Vitamin Shoppe is an endless aisle of nutritional vitamins and herbs.

In recent years, one product, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. Branched chain amino acids supplements – or BCAAs – are powders containing a group of three essential amino acids; leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

They’re essential due to the body’s inability to produce them on its own, so they must be derived from food, or in the alternative, as supplements.

The argument for branched chain amino acids is undisputable. The trio confers numerous benefits, including but not limited to; improved immune function1, reduced exercise-induced muscle damage2, and elevated energy levels at the gym3. The aforementioned qualities are just a few deduced from a never ending array of research that generally agrees to their positive properties.

The three branched chain amino acids –  leucine, isoleucine, and valine – are part of the 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of protein.

Amino acids make up the body’s muscles, tissue, and other various cells. of the 20, BCAAs belong to an “essential” subgroup of nine, which is set apart from the other 11″

What makes BCAAs particularly special, is that of the 20, they belong to an “essential” subgroup of nine, which is set apart from the 11 “nonessentials” due to the body’s inability to produce them.

Consequently, our objective isn’t to evaluate BCAAs efficacy. That’s clearly settled. Instead, the aim is determining whether BCAA supplements are ever necessary, or are better in supplemental form than when derived from a wholesome diet.

Better Than Whey Derived BCAAs?

One of the numerous benefits purported by the fitness industry is related to an advantage of supplement derived BCAAs over their whey protein counterparts. Specifically, it’s often claimed that supplement derived amino acids enter your body in isolation.

Ostensibly, in this form, the BCAAs enter your bloodstream quicker – avoiding liver and gut tissue digestion – and have a faster effect on glycogen and stored sugar levels.4

Hence, the supplement derived BCAAs, unlike their whey protein derived counterparts forego digestion and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. In turn, these free form BCAAs have a greater effect on amino acid levels.

It’s further alleged that free form BCAAs are so much more effective than those derived from whey protein, that a few grams of the former have a significantly greater impact on protein synthesis than a larger quantity derived from the latter.

However, these claims leave out an important consideration. As found in a 2011 Nagoya University study5 – examining concentrations of plasma free amino acids induced by BCAA supplementation – there were significant increases in concentrations of individual BCAAs amongst overnight and fasted subjects.

Levels corresponded to the amounts of amino acids ingested. Most importantly, the subjects’ amino acid levels were measured three hours after ingestion.

Hence, the study does give some credence to these claims. Specifically, three hours post ingestion, amino acids levels do rise.

But this doesn’t back up the notion that BCAA supplements are advantageous to whey protein derived counterparts for two reasons; whey protein digests relatively quickly, and more importantly, these subjects were in a fasted. By its nature, a fasted state enables quicker absorption. Unfortunately, this study doesn’t reflect habits of most BCAA supplement users.

They Don’t Digest Any Quicker Either

Further, the fitness industry alleges that bypassing the liver and gut frees up supplement derived BCAAs to be available immediately as an intra workout energy source.

Specifically, the two “less important” amino acids – valine and isoleucine – play a larger role in this process as their glucogenic properties provide the immediate intra workout energy.

Contrary to these claims, there is research indicative of the opposite. Specifically, a 2006 University of Aberdeen study6 found that “increased availability of mixed amino acids caused a rise in human muscle protein synthesis to about the same extent as complete meals.

Hence, the study agrees with the commonly held belief that an increased amino acid profile is conducive to higher muscle protein synthesis.

However, the most important takeaway is the measuring stick. Namely, when discussing their results, the researchers’ measurement bar for a supplement’s efficacy was a complete meal, not a supplement that provides amino acids in “isolation.”

Further, the “research tells us that acutely raising BCAA levels (and leucine in particular) before and after exercise helps us build more muscle.

There is no evidence that doing it through the ingestion of a BCAA supplement is more effective than food, however. In fact, there’s research to the contrary; food, and whey protein specifically; may be even more beneficial than amino acid drinks.”

BCAAs On A Cut

Branched chain amino acids bestow another crucial advantage for fitness enthusiasts; in a caloric deficit, they aid muscle retention and even lead to gains.

Specifically, BCAAs help individuals experiencing catabolism (muscle loss from increased protein breakdown). The process is achieved mainly through higher levels of one amino acid in particular; leucine.

The process is achieved mainly through higher levels of one amino acid in particular; leucine.

In a joint study7 by Aston University and Abbott Nutrition, “leucine and HMB were found to attenuate the increase in protein degradation and the decrease in protein synthesis in murine myotubes induced by a proteolysis-inducing factor, lipopolysaccharide, and angiotensin II.”

Consequently, it’s been ascertained that higher BCAA levels, specifically leucine, prevent protein breakdown and upkeep protein synthesis.

Foods With BCAAs

With so much research and anecdotal evidence, it would simply be counter productive to argue against BCAAs. These amino acids are conducive, almost necessary, to anyone chasing a more fit and healthy lifestyle.

That much we know for certain. But in supplemental form, unless you’re countering amino acid deficiencies, there’s no need for powder.

Besides whey protein, you can attain BCAAs from a variety of wholesome and nutritious foods, both animal and vegetable sourced. Most of the animal derived BCAAs come from beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk (including yogurt and cheeses).

These are “complete” protein sources that contain all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential ones.

Diversifying your diet? Beans, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, lima beans, lentils, and corn are great non-animal sources. Further, amino acids can be derived from vegetables as well.

Keep in mind however, most vegetables and grains do not contain all nine essential amino acids, with the exception of quinoa. However, if you consume a balanced diet, chances are the non-animal protein sources you do eat will altogether contain all the essential amino acids.

Marketing Gimmicks

Thus far we’ve only explored whether there is any real need for BCAA supplements. The  aforementioned list of foods from which BCAAs may be attained make one thing clear; a wholesome diet provides ample amino acids.

But there’s another question worth tackling. Namely, if your dietary habits aren’t up to par and you do suffer from deficiencies, are BCAA supplements beneficial then?

Not necessarily. As it turns out, most BCAA supplements provide amino acids in quantities and ratios unsupported by research.

Specifically, leucine – the most coveted of the three BCAAs8 – is often mixed into supplements in a 2:1:1 ratio, in relation to isoleucine and valine. However, for all the industry claims of it being the “perfect” ratio, there is still no conclusive study ascertaining exactly what the “right” ratio is.

Hence, the purported “perfect ratio” claims are a marketing gimmick. Simply put, we don’t know what the perfect amount of leucine is, and subsequently, don’t know what the appropriate ratio is either.

Personal Experience

On a constant cut, I would benefit particularly well from BCAA supplements. And for a while I did. But as I concentrated on a cleaner calorie deficit, filled with more wholesome foods, I learned that I simply don’t need a supplement to do a job that my diet already did well.

Personally, I’ve never looked into the additives that contribute to the rainbow of colors and tastes which BCAA supplements come in.

But after years of supplements being a mainstay in my diet, I got tired of the fake taste profiles. If your diet is right, you don’t need supplements and there’s a great chance that you’re satisfied with the variety of food you get to enjoy.

On another note, one reason is constantly cited by the for the supplement’s popularity. The flavored drinks allow people to reach self imposed daily water intake goals faster.

Considering how unnecessary the supplement is as a health aid, making water taste better may be the best thing going for it.



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