“You’re not taking your BCAAs?” Maybe you’ve heard some variation of this phrase tossed around the weight room. Heck, maybe you’ve even popped a BCAAs supplement without really knowing the ABCs of BCAAs.
So let me break it down for you. BCAAs stands for “Branched Chain Amino Acids.” Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are nine essential amino acids in total, but there’s a key trio that helps you maintain muscle: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Of these three, leucine is the muscle-building powerhouse. To unlock the full effects of leucine, the latest research suggests consuming 2 to 3 grams a sitting, at least 3 times during the day. You’ll find that sweet spot of 2 to 3 grams leucine in 1 scoop of whey protein (of which about 25 percent is from BCAAs), 1 cup of cottage cheese, or 3 ounces of chicken breast.
In fact, any animal protein has the leucine, isoleucine, and valine you need—in doses that are actually doable. “Bottom line: If you’re taking in adequate protein, then BCAAs are a complete waste of money,” says protein researcher, Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., of McMaster University.
Men’s Health nutrition advisor, Mike Roussell, Ph.D. agrees. “It is important to realize that BCAAs are found naturally in the proteins that you are already eating, like whey or casein protein shakes, eggs, beef, fish, and chicken,” he says. “This means that for the average guy looking to get fit, there’s no need to add a BCAA supplement to your post-workout protein shake. It’s overkill and it won’t get you any better results.”
It’s not that taking more will hurt you, it’s just that those added aminos may not help you build any more muscle. In fact, one study in the journal Amino Acids (yes, there’s actually a research journal named that) found that the additional supplementation of leucine, one of the BCAAs, taken before and during anaerobic running, did not improve exercise performance.
On the flip, one study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that individuals were able to maintain lean body mass when supplementing with BCAAs during a calorie-restricted diet.
So, these study participants weren’t eating the recommended 2 to 3 grams of BCAAs per sitting in their low-calorie diet, but when they took BCAA supplements, it helped them retain muscle. And that’s hard to do when you’re trying to drastically slim down.
The final verdict? It’s not that BCAA supplements have no merit. You should take them if you’re not getting enough in your daily diet. But when you eat 2 to 3 grams of leucine from food sources at least 3 times a day, you don’t need them.
By Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D.