Unless you train at a male heavy gym or enjoy nerding out on nutrition info, it’s likely you may never have heard of BCAAs.
BCAAs or ‘branched-chain amino acids’ are key building blocks that make-up protein and help both and build muscle.
While they are in no way more essential for men than women, day-to-day it’s more common to find most men are up with it and understand why BCAAs will up their ‘gains’ so to speak, whereas women aren’t.
Why? Because traditionally BCAAs were primarily known to the body building community, so it’s likely the most common reason we’ve not dabbled before, is that when it comes to training most women veer away from anything that suggests ‘bulking up.’ But in reality, we can still add BCAAs to our diet and benefit our bods without turning into the incredible hulk. Promise!
But in order to understand how amino acids work, why we need them and how they can work for us, it’s important to cover the basics. To do this, we’ve brought Harriet Walker, Sports Dietitian on board to talk BCAAs and essential amino acids with us.
What are essential amino acids and why do we need them?
“The protein we consume each day is made up of a combination of different ‘amino acids’ – which are the smaller building blocks of protein. The best way to understand it is to think of amino acids as being like letters of the alphabet. Just as different letters make up different words, different combinations of amino acids help build proteins.”
“Each type of protein we eat has a different combination of the amino acids. In total there are 22 amino acids and of these, there are nine the body can’t make by itself but that we need – these are our ‘essential amino acids.”
“While we can get them from animal products – think meat, eggs, dairy (along with whey and casein protein) all of which have a high biological value and are a good source of protein, a lot of plant based protein misses a few key amino acids. As a result, to get your ‘nine essential acids’ in you often need a supplement.”
What are BCAAs?
“Within the nine ‘essential amino acids’ (EAA’s), we have a trio referred to as ‘branched chain amino acids’ (BCAA). The BCAA trio is made up of – isoleucine, leucine and valine. What makes BCAAs special is they can be metabolised by our muscle and as a result – help us build lean muscle mass.”
“To boost your BCAA’s you can either up your diet with additional dairy, eggs, meat, fish and soy or if you’re vegetarian, vegan or can’t make up enough daily protein from the above diet (especially if reducing calories), BCAA supplements can be a useful alternative.”
Who are BCAAs best suited to?
“As they are a great boost of essential amino acids they are suited to both men and women. But in terms of who should use them and how much, some people may benefit from boosting their BCAA intake more than others. These people include…”
1. Those who want to… lose weight
“To preface, BCAAs can be good for those who are already active but trying to reduce body fat while maintaining or increasing muscle mass (which is why it’s commonly known in the bodybuilding community).”
“What a BCAA supplement does is give you the amino acids you need without additional calories. For example, if you consume 100g grilled chicken, you will yield roughly 27g total protein (of which approximately 14g will be the essential amino acids + some fat, totalling about 180 calories. Where an essential amino acid supplement such as Ultra BCEAA provides roughly the same amount of EAA’s in a 24g scoop but for only 72 calories. They are not however a complete food so should not be used as a meal replacement, rather a supplement to add to your diet.”
2.Those who want to… recover quickly
“If you are do a lot of intense activity like weight training, cross fit or endurance running or cycling then they can really assist muscle recovery and growth, especially if you have trouble hitting your protein targets via food or are a vegetarian.”
3. Those who want to… boost training
“BCAA’s can help boost training by raising amino acid levels in the blood during a time of extra need, such as in the period after training. They may also play a role in reducing fatigue when taken during long bouts of training, such as long distance running or cycling. We are able to consume adequate amounts of protein from wholefood sources, however post exercise appetite can be suppressed which is when making a protein drink with a BCAA supplement is it’s easily absorbed compared to food and prompt faster recovery so you can keep training.”
4. Those who want to… tone up
“Getting your total protein in is important for building muscle and tone regardless of gender. The important thing is making sure you consume adequate amounts of protein evenly across the day. Most women find it harder to get it all in, especially if they have a smaller energy and calorie budget than men. In this situation a BCAA supplement can help you meet your target, as branched chain amino acids play an important role in muscle synthesis (however all nine are still essential to build muscle).”
So, just to clarify, women can’t bulk up from using it?
“No women are not going to ‘bulk up’ by increasing protein and doing resistance training. It takes years of dedicated training to achieve that level of muscle mass for women and men (i.e. body builder), so it is not going to happen accidentally!”
“A person undertaking weights training for the first time – male or female – will require a boost to their usual protein intake, as their body adapts to the training and the energetic requirements of developing muscle or ‘tone’. Similarly, as we age, a higher protein intake can be beneficial for building and maintaining muscle mass.”
Great, so how much should we aim for?
“Women are recommended to have an average of 0.75g x per kilo of body weight protein. For women doing regular high intensity training, a higher intake of 1.2-2g per kilo of body weight can be beneficial to promote recovery and muscle gain.”
“I’d also recommend sourcing a BCAA with a high level of leucine per serve. Leucine is the amino acid responsible for starting the muscle protein synthesis process and according to research you need to take a minimum of 2-3g dose per serve to be effective. Ideally go for one with a 5g minimum serve size and a ratio of Leucine: Isoleucine: Valine – 2:1:1, such as Body Science Ultra BCEAA.”