Amino acids are the building blocks that make up protein. Your body puts them together like Legos to create muscle. While your body can make some from scratch (called non-essential amino acids), you have to obtain others (essential amino acids), from food or supplements. These essential amino acids-especially a certain kind called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)-are the limiting factor in your body's ability to build muscle. Here's more on what the BCAAs are, the benefits of BCAAs, and how to get them into your diet.
Whether you're trying to shed pounds or beat your PR, increasing your muscle mass is essential, since it's key to both weight loss and performance. Also, muscle is built very, very slowly. While fat loss can be easily accelerated, muscle building cannot. However, muscle burns calories all day long-meaning you'll burn more calories during Muscles and Mimosas and you'll burn more calories sitting on the couch. Even if you aren't trying to add more muscle, you break down muscle during exercise that needs to be rebuilt so that you can work out again the next day. Which is why we always put a priority on maintaining the muscle you have and potentially building up more-which requires getting enough protein and the right amino acids.
Benefits of BCAAs
There are three types of BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are called branched-chain amino acids because their chemical makeup has a unique branched structure (like a tree branch). This gives them some interesting abilities that no other amino acids have.
One big perk of BCAAs is that they help prevent muscle breakdown. They help increase the rate in which your body can build proteins so you aren't breaking down muscle faster than you can rebuild. Leucine is the key BCAA in this process.
BCAAs also provide fuel for exercise. During an intense workout, the unique structure of BCAAs allows them to act as fuel for your muscles. And finally, they may help you slim down: Several studies show a relationship between BCAA intake and leanness, and high intakes of BCAAs are generally associated with a leaner body.
Sources of BCAAs
1. BCAA Supplements: Drinks with BCAAs have become very popular and come in lots of great citrus and fruit flavors that don't taste like you're just drinking protein. These products are fine to use right after exercise or during long training session (over 90 minutes). However, there isn't a lot of scientific evidence to support unique benefits of pure BCAA supplements over other protein drinks or foods that has similar amounts of these amino acids, so don't feel like you have to use a BCAA supplement.
2. Whey protein or milk: A simple shake with whey protein will deliver all the BCAAs that you need along with all the other essential amino acids to round out your muscle building and recovery efforts. Or you can simply have a glass of milk to serve as your nutritional recovery aid. Milk is naturally loaded with BCAAs and the little sugar from the lactose will further aid in recovery after a longer exercise session.
3. Whole foods: Fish, eggs, lean beef, chicken, and turkey all contain ample amounts of these key amino acids. (Plant-based sources are often considered incomplete proteins, but you can combine them to create complete proteins.)
4. Pea or rice protein: Plant protein is generally lower in BCAAs, but pea protein is an exception in this area. Just make sure to take in more total protein to get all the essential amino acids your body needs. One study published in Nutrition Journal found that 40g of rice protein worked just as well as 40g of whey protein when it came to improving body composition.
BCAAs are beneficial for muscle growth and improving your body composition. However, there’s no need to run out an empty your wallet at the supplement store. There are natural foods to eat after your workout. The important thing is to move with intention and love what you eat.
Jacqueline corbett, ms rd ld
Registered Dietitian, #NKFitSquad Contributor