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Published on May 4, 2018

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are now one of the most popular supplements around, earning a place in millions of homes and gyms, worldwide. Numerous studies show a direct link between BCAA intake and improved strength and recovery, fuelling sales growth which shows no sign of slowing.

Whether you are a keen runner, professional tennis player, amateur weightlifter or an Olympic gold medallist, you could certainly benefit from adding more BCAAs to your diet.

Evidence supports the use of BCAA supplementation for strength and recovery during exercise but also recognizes their role in some diseases, such as cancer. Other studies have also linked bloodstream levels of BCAAs to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.

In this article, we’ll go over the main benefits of BCAAs for strength and recovery and why you should consider adding them to your diet.

What are BCAAs?

When we talk about protein, we are referring to amino acid residue – which is what protein is made from. BCAAs are essential amino acids because the body is unable to synthesize them on its own, therefore, they must be consumed in our diet. Of the nine essential amino acids, three of them fall into the BCAA category. They are:

  • Leucine – boosts protein synthesis, helping build and repair muscle. It also assists with insulin to regulate blood sugars and is one of only two amino acids which cannot be converted into sugar.
  • Isoleucine – enables energy to be stored in muscle cells rather than fat cells by regulating glucose uptake.
  • Valine – improves mental functioning, reduces fatigue and prevents muscle breakdown.

Other essential amino acids are oxidized (broken down to release energy) in the liver, however, BCAAs are unique in that they can be metabolized in muscle. Why is this important? Well, the body needs BCAAs in the bloodstream to maintain normal bodily functions. If none are available, the body will break down muscle cells to release them. [1] [1]

Food Sources

The supplement industry does a great job convincing us to invest in BCAA supplements to get optimal results. However, for the most part, you will get all you need from everyday foods.

The recommended intake of BCAAs is around 15-20 grams per day, so getting enough from your diet is not all that difficult. You should aim for around five grams per meal (assuming three square meals per day).

Here are some common foods with examples of their BCAA content, per 3oz serving, cooked.

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  • Cheddar Cheese – 4.7g
  • Ground turkey – 4.2g
  • Ground Beef (95% lean) – 4.0g
  • Peanuts – 3.1g
  • Cashew Nuts – 2.8g
  • Whole eggs – 2.2g
  • Chicken breast – 2.1g
  • Lentils – 1.3g
  • Black Beans – 1.3g

Lentils, black beans and kidney beans contain all three branched-chain amino acids; however, some plant-based foods are not “complete” proteins. For a food to be a complete protein source, it must contain all nine essential amino acids. While kidney beans and black beans are complete, lentils lack enough methionine.

You can overcome this problem by combining lentils with other foods high in methionine (such as rice) to form complete proteins. Peanuts suffer a similar problem because they lack the essential amino acid, lysine. To make it complete, simply spread it on bread or toast.

If you’re unsure what foods contain complete proteins, head over to nutritiondata.self.com. This fantastic site lists the protein and nutritional profiles of thousands of foods. If a protein is not complete, simply click the “find foods with complementary profile” link to find sources containing the missing essential amino acids.

The 2:1:1 Ratio

When you look at BCAA supplement packaging, you will nearly always find reference to the BCAA ratio. The most common is 2:1:1, made up of two-parts leucine, one-part isoleucine, and one-part valine. While 2:1:1 is the most common, you will sometimes see products with ratios of 4:1:1, 8:1:1 and even 10:1:1.

These higher ratio BCAA supplements all contain more leucine. If you take time to read the packaging or the manufacturer’s marketing materials, they usually reference the muscle-building power of leucine. In reality, they are just cheaper to produce, so you will rarely find them citing existing research to back up their claims.

Scientists have used the 2:1:1 ratio in studies based on the levels found in natural food sources. Historically, there has been little need to investigate other ratios. Nevertheless, the role of leucine in protein synthesis has caught some interest. While current evidence is limited, a ratio of 4:1:1 has shown promise in one study, where results found it to increase protein synthesis by over 30%.

Benefits of BCAAs

1. You’ll Build Major Muscle Mass

When looking to improve strength, or to build muscle (hypertrophy), you need to activate protein synthesis. For this to happen, leucine is the single most important dietary requirement. Chemical signals tell your body to build and repair muscle, and leucine effectively amplifies that signal – especially following resistance exercise. [2]

As leucine is the main amino associated with muscle growth, you might be wondering why this is not recommended as a standalone supplement for muscle growth. As it happens, studies have been conducted to investigate. One such study compared three groups: one took a placebo, the other a leucine supplement, while the third group consumed a regular BCAA drink with a ratio of 2:1:1. While leucine performed better than the placebo, it did not do as well as BCAA group.

The reason for this is simple: all amino acids are required for muscle growth. So, while leucine stimulates the process, other forms of protein are needed to build muscle. Without the other amino acids, leucine is like a motivational building site manager with no workers to do the job. [3]

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2. You’ll Be Far Less Exhausted

Getting tired during a workout can be a real drag. You will be glad to hear that branched-chain amino acids – particularly valine – can help with this.

When you exercise, the level of tryptophan (another essential amino acid) rises. When tryptophan reaches the brain, it is used to make serotonin – a hormone been linked to our feeling of fatigue. All amino acids are transported to the brain on the same bus, yet not all are allowed entry to the brain. With limited accommodation available, valine competes with tryptophan and overpowers it. Less tryptophan in the brain means less serotonin, and less serotonin means lower fatigue. [4]

3. You’ll Recover Way Quicker

The body can take a real beating during intensive exercise. Recovering after such a session can take a few days or more.

One study, looking into the effects of BCAA supplementation in experienced resistance-trained athletes, showed positive results. The rate of recovery improved for strength, countermovement jump height and muscle soreness.[5] BCAAs can also speed up recovery time following endurance sports and intensive cardio sessions.4. No More Muscle Catabolism

Our priority, when exercising – whether it’s to lose weight, tone up, or get healthier in general – is usually to improve our body composition; after all, better body composition makes you look more toned, and the health benefits are well documented.

While exercising, we need more BCAAs to function properly. [11] [6]

When bloodstream levels are too low, the body looks for somewhere to get them. At this stage, it begins breaking down (catabolizing) muscle tissue to access the branched-chain amino acids it needs.

Consuming BCAAs ensures an adequate level is available in the bloodstream, reducing the chances of muscle breakdown. During and following intensive exercise sessions, it is important to consume slightly higher levels. This is the reason why some athletes will sip on a BCAA supplement drink during a workout.

Intermittent fasting has risen in popularity in recent years, with millions of people finding success with this form of dieting. As you can imagine, while in the fasted state, the bloodstream is low on BCAAs. Knocking back a very low-calorie BCAA drink during the fasted helps combat this.

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Following a workout, a meal or meal replacement high in protein is typically consumed to further replenish BCAA levels. If the aim of the workout was to build muscle, this is the best time to give protein synthesis a boost with some muscle-building leucine. Fast acting carbs are also a good idea at this time, as the energy can be stored in the muscles as glycogen.

5. Massive Muscle Energy Storage

When you eat, the energy you consume is either used or stored. You could be forgiven for thinking that excess energy is stored in fat cells, but it’s not.

Once digested, carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which supplies your cells with energy. The hormone, insulin, helps regulate blood sugar. One of the ways it does this is by helping glucose move through cell walls to be stored.

Unused glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Any excess glucose which cannot be deposited as glycogen is finally stored in fat cells.

The fantastic thing about glycogen stored in muscle cells is this: once stored in the muscle, it cannot return to the bloodstream to be used anywhere else. It can be used only by the muscle. For this reason, encouraging glucose to be stored in muscle cells is preferable to it being stored as fat.

Glycogen stored in muscles is a readily available energy source. So, when blood sugars are too low, contracting muscles will use the fuel stored within them to get the job done. This is where the branched-chain amino acid, isoleucine, shines by promoting glucose uptake by muscles. Greater uptake means less energy is stored as fat resulting in quicker energy access for the muscle. [7]

Dangers, Side Effects & Toxicity

Is There a Risk of Toxicity

It is safe to say that consuming high levels of BCAAs is not toxic. Studies looked at toxicity in mice and rats, concluding there to be no observed-adverse-effect level. [8]

However, if you’re looking to maximize your training efforts, research shows that excessive levels of BCAAs can actually hinder performance.[14] [9]

Inclusive Ties to Type-2 Diabetes

Maybe the largest concern for some people is that there is a direct link between high levels of BCAAs in the blood and type-2 diabetes. [15] On initial inspection, this looks to be bad news for branched-chain amino acids. However, further research suggests it is poor insulin sensitivity which drives higher circulating BCAA levels.[10] [11]

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Negative Effects on Insulin Sensitivity in Vegans

During a 2017 study, when supplementing with BCAAs, vegans became more resistant to insulin. [12]

During this study, they consumed an extra 20 grams of branched-chain amino acids per day for three months. Considering the lack of research on the subject, it is difficult to ascertain why this happened. Evidence shows that switching to a plant-based diet lowers the BCAA plasma levels associated with insulin resistance. [13]

The vegan subjects also had much better insulin sensitivity at the start of the study.

Increased Spread of Cancer & Disease

Inside our cells, a series of chemical reactions are constantly taking place. This series of events, known as a biological pathway, is what we refer to as our metabolism. These interactions produce new molecules such as fat or protein and can trigger changes in our cells.

The mTOR pathway forms part of this process. In simple terms, the mTOR pathway regulates cell growth. The branched-chain amino acid, leucine, stimulates the mTOR pathway, which is great for muscle growth, but not so great for some forms of cancer. Many cancers rely on mTOR activity for the growth and spread of cancerous cells. For this reason, much research is taking place regarding BCAAs and their link with diseases. [14]

Take Home Advice: Take BCAAs

It’s easy to see, given the evidence, why BCAAs are such a popular supplement for people engaging in exercise. Faster recovery, increased muscle growth, and reduced fatigue benefit all kinds of athletes, from beginners through to seasoned Olympians.

For those lifting weights, BCAAs will help you get bigger and stronger; marathon runners might delay hitting the wall, and if you’re playing competitive football week in week out, you can recover faster. In contrast, if you are not exercising regularly, there really is no need: just ensure you’re eating enough complete, plant-based proteins such as lentils, black beans, nuts and grains, some fish and meat a few times per week and you’ll be fine.

However, if you are vegan, your family has a history of diabetes, or have been recently diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, you should certainly consult with your doctor before adding BCAA supplements to your diet.

Featured photo credit: Brad Neathery via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Robin Young

Fitness writer, and CEO at Fitness Savvy

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

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Published on September 14, 2018

25 Ideas for Delicious and Healthy Lunches You Can Take to Work

25 Ideas for Delicious and Healthy Lunches You Can Take to Work

Preparing and bringing meals to work can feel awkward when you’re accustomed to running out and grabbing a meal on break. This habit can really start to put a dent in your wallet and your health when choices are limited to cheap fast food or fresh but expensive, made-for-you meals.

Try balancing the scale a bit and prepping a couple meals for lunch each week.

If you’re stuck on what to make, here are 25 ideas of healthy lunches you can bring to work without breaking the bank or sucking too much time from your routine.

1. Sweet Potato Hummus

    Hummus is a nutritious dip or spread that can go with just about anything! Making your own gives you the know over exactly what’s in your meal.

    Pack a small dish with your homemade dip, fresh carrots, celery, and grapes, with whole grain chips, pitas, or sliced bread for a cafe-style lunch box.

    ~ Get the recipe here!

    2. Chicken, Rice & Veggies

      It sounds all too easy, but why pay for a rice bowl when you can make one fresh from home? Simply cook your rice and steam your favorite vegetables ahead of time.

      Add chicken, steak, or grilled tofu on top. Sprinkle with parsley, cumin, or curry according to your palate.

      ~ Get the recipe here!

      3. Slow Cooker Curried Butternut Squash Stew

        Curry is a profound spice with a multitude of health benefits. With this stew, you give your digestive system a bit of a break from heavy meats and meals.

        It’s a great option if you’re trying to stick to a cleanse or reset before Fall arrives. This recipe makes it easy on you to prep and let the crockpot do the rest!

        ~ Get the recipe here!

        4. Spicy Tuna Sandwiches

          Only a few ingredients are needed to complete this quick mix in under 15 minutes.

          Tuna is a good source for protein and essential fatty acids. This recipe kicks it up a notch with protein powered beans and a little heat.

          All that’s left is to choose your favorite bread or hoagie, (whole grain is recommended). Top with fresh tomato, avocado, and even bacon to take this everyday sandwich over the top.

          ~ Get the recipe here!

          5. Steak Fajita Salad

            Fajitas are fun to eat and simple to cook. Using fresh produce for your meal utilizes the powerful effects they have when freshly ripened.

            Onions are strong detoxifiers and bell peppers are hydrating and provide vitamins unique to their colors. Steak is a great source for protein, but try to go grass-fed if you can!

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            The same dish can be made with alternative proteins, and even salmon or shrimp if you’re craving seafood.

            ~ Get the recipe here!

            6. Turkey and Mashed Potato Casserole

              This nontraditional casserole is great for when the weather starts to cool down.

              Potatoes catch a bad carb reputation, however if you’re really busting your tail during the week, extra carbs will support your efforts, not kill them.

              For variety, mix in seasonal veggies before you bake it. Then, you can enjoy leftovers or bring it to share with your coworkers!

              ~ Get the recipe here!

              7. Tofu Lettuce Wraps

                This easy lunch barely requires any cooking and serves your body with lightweight nutrients to keep you running through the rest of your day.

                You can also swap the tofu for grilled chicken, or add lightly diced and grilled veggies to mix up your leftovers for the following day.

                ~ Get the recipe here!

                8. Thanksgiving Waffles

                  This dish will be sure to satisfy a few up and coming cravings as we welcome Fall season and holidays.

                  Turkey naturally boosts your body’s happy chemical- serotonin, and cranberries are a powerfully cleansing fruit packed with vitamin C. I’d recommend making your own waffle mix with gluten-free flour, like coconut or almond flour. All around, this may be one of the best recipe ideas ever.

                  Get the recipe here!

                  9. Southwest Chicken Wrap

                    Wraps are perfect options for a busy day. They are easy to make, store, and eat on the go while providing you with enough fuel to conquer your schedule.

                    For really fresh flavor, I’d hit the farmer’s market to buy your corn and peppers. But if needed, frozen veggies work just fine!

                    You can grab a cooked rotisserie chicken to make it even easier on yourself, too! Vegans may enjoy the same dish with a creamy garlic and almond cream dressing and alternative cheese.

                    ~ Get the recipe here!

                    10. Lemon Chicken & Asparagus Stir-Fry

                      With only a couple of ingredients, this dish is fairly quick to make. Lemon juice helps to preserve foods and keep them fresh longer.

                      You can change out and mix up your rice for couscous, quinoa, or noodles.

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                      ~ Get the recipe here!

                      11. Apple, Almond Butter, & Granola Sandwiches

                        If you ever find yourself craving sweets at lunch time, these sandwiches may be your new best friend.

                        Apples are energizing and contain cleansing properties to boost your metabolism, while almond butter is a rich source for healthy fats. Pairing these with whole grain granola provides a balanced and inexpensive meal for your lunch hour.

                        ~ Get the recipe here!

                        12. Veggie & Hummus Sandwich

                          Hummus spreads have caught a lot of hype, and for good reason! It’s a delicious way to get in protein and fiber, as well as minerals that support your nervous system.

                          If you’re not a fan of sprouts, try using fresh bell peppers or sliced cucumbers for a refreshing pop.

                          ~ Get the recipe here!

                          13. Taco Salad in a Jar

                            Made with ground turkey rather than beef, this recipe is much lighter on your stomach and easy to pack the night before.

                            You can also add fresh salsa with mango and parsley, baby Kale instead of romaine lettuce for a superfood boost, and alternative cheese for an allergen friendly choice.

                            ~ Get the recipe here!

                            14. Apricot & Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich

                              Chicken salad is an easy go-to when you’re short on time or want to prep for the week.

                              Apricots pack a serious punch when it comes to digestive and circulatory health. They are especially great for women’s reproductive health.

                              Almonds help to burn excess fats and rebuild muscles mass, making them a perfect blend of nutrients as well.

                              For a vegan option, use grilled tofu instead of chicken.

                              ~ Get the recipe here!

                              15. Shrimp and Grits

                                Shrimp are a light source of protein and are easy to prepare for this slow-cooker idea.

                                You can change out a few ingredients to make it dairy-free, using nut-milk alternatives for the butter and creams.

                                You can also add hearty veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes instead of grits for a rich source of healthy carbs to keep you full and focused.

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                                ~ Get the recipe here!

                                16. Sesame-Ginger Noodles

                                  Another light dish with multiple choices to mix and match ingredients to your liking.

                                  You could use veggie noodles for extra nutritional boost and top with various seeds, almonds, avocado.

                                  Add lightly grilled chicken, tofu, or steak on top for satisfying protein and you’re good to go!

                                  ~ Get the recipe here!

                                  17. Sun-Dried-Tomato & Pasta Salad

                                    Tomatoes are an excellent source for vitamin C. Pair them with a delicious pasta, whether its whole grain, brown rice pasta, or even zucchini noodles, and you’ve got a meal that will help you stay lean without missing a beat.

                                    ~ Get the recipe here!

                                    18. Wheat Berry & Citrus Salad

                                      This lunch recipe can go just about anywhere with you. It doesn’t require much to make and can be cooked in larger batches so you can get the most from your leftovers.

                                      A dairy-free version can be made without the Feta cheese, or by swapping for a vegan alternative.

                                      ~ Get the recipe here!

                                      19. Miso Sweet Potato and Broccoli Bowl

                                        Sweet potatoes are great sources for carbs because they are rich in vitamins and minerals that support your digestive system and a healthy metabolism.

                                        Broccoli provides rich green nutrients and helps to cleanse your body and support your immune system.

                                        Combining the two creates a delicious, guilt-free lunch that works to keep you operating at your best and brightest!

                                        ~ Get the recipe here!

                                        20. Chickpea, Cherry Tomato & Feta Salad

                                          Chickpea contains muscle-building amino acids, protein, and healthy fats that also support weight goals and mental performance.

                                          To make this dish totally vegan or vegetarian, simply nix the feta and go with a vegan cheese for the creamy effect.

                                          ~ Get the recipe here!

                                          21. One-Pot Pesto & Pea Pasta

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                                            If you’ve only got one pot to spare, it’s all you need to cook this dish in under 30 minutes.

                                            You can purchase pesto from the store or try your hand at homemade. Making your own pesto with freshly picked Basil leaves is a wonderful way to connect with your food.

                                            Still feel like it needs a little something more? Add cherry tomatoes, olives, and chicken for an even more fulfilling meal.

                                            For gluten-free options, you can also try the same recipe with brown rice pasta or veggie noodles.

                                            ~ Get the recipe here!

                                            22. Macaroni Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing

                                              Mix up your traditional pasta salad with homemade avocado spread!

                                              You can definitely stretch this as a side for a few lunches, pairing each with a different protein like a garlic-lemon chicken or top it off with baked salmon!

                                              ~ Get the recipe here!

                                              23. No-Bake Oat, Peanut Butter, & Granola Bars

                                                If you know your day is going to be non-stop, these easy granola bars may be your saving grace! You only need to mix together 4 ingredients and chill the bars to firm.

                                                Delicious, healthy, and easy for any day of the week. And the kids love them, too!

                                                ~ Get the recipe here!

                                                24. Cucumber-Lox Toast

                                                  Here’s another quick fix made with only five ingredients! This recipe gives you about 12 grams of protein, plus the health benefits found in yogurt like natural probiotics.

                                                  If you choose whole grain bread, the whole meal with remain very low in fat and boost your energy for the second half of your day.

                                                  If you only want to bring one or two slices, it would pair well with a side of fresh berries, sliced apples, or banana chips.

                                                  ~ Get the recipe here!

                                                  25. Blueberry-Orange Parfait

                                                    Parfaits don’t have to be just breakfast or dessert, they can make filling lunches. This one is made with fresh and energizing fruit.

                                                    You can add almonds, granola, and even more fruit for a larger portion.

                                                    ~ Get the recipe here!

                                                    With these 25 healthy lunch recipes, you can spice up your lunch break without breaking the bank. From now on, you can get the most from your lunch break with fresh and healthy lunches!

                                                    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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