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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

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Robin Young

Fitness writer, and CEO at Fitness Savvy

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

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Published on March 21, 2019

How to Find Weight Loss Meal Plans That Work for You

How to Find Weight Loss Meal Plans That Work for You

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be so successful in finding a diet that works for them? Meanwhile, you find it hard to stick to any one diet — Atkins, Paleo, Keto, vegan, vegetarian, high-carb, low carb, and, my goodness the list goes on and on…

If you can relate to that, then you are in the right place! I am here to show you not only which weight-loss meal plans work better, but also how to make those diets work for you!

I am going to take you through the steps that will guarantee you long-term success in finding a diet that is effective for you!

Step 1: Know Your Body

“I don’t get they lost all that weight with that diet? I’ve tried it and it didn’t work?”

Have you ever said a phrase similar to that? If so, you’re not alone. Each person is different, which also means that every person out there will have a slightly different plan for what works for them.

If you are going to find success in this endeavor, then you need to understand YOUR specific needs. Each person is different, and there are countless obstacles that could be making it hard for you to lose weight like blood sugar imbalance, food intolerance, etc.

The great news is that no one knows your body as well as you do! So, yes, you might hear about an amazing high fruit diet, but only you know whether that would harm you or help you in the long run.

Here are some cues that can help guide you along to which diet might help you best:

Do you Get super anxious or jittery after eating high carb meals? Do you crave sugar or starches? Do you have blood sugar imbalances?

For you, eating a low amount of starchy or sugary carbs might be the best options! You could try a diet like a Paleo or a Blood Sugar Balancing Plan to see if they work for you!

Do you find your stomach constantly in knots, have a high PH, and can’t tolerate meat well?

Consider going plant-based! The high amount of vegetables could balance your body and reduce inflammation!

Do you always crave processed foods? Do you find it hard to eat a balanced diet because of your cravings?

Your body might need to reset and get used to eating whole and nutritious foods! Maybe you could give the Whole 30 a shot!

Do you struggle with food sensitivities? Does your digestion make it hard for you to lose weight?

An elimination diet or the virgin diet could be just what you need to discover what sensitivities are your pitfalls.

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Whatever your unique conditions, you likely already know what really does or doesn’t work for you. Go with a diet that fits your needs.

Step 2: Power Up!

Now that you have some idea as far as the basic diet, there are some guidelines I’ll go over with you. No matter what diet you choose, there are some rules that you can follow to ensure your success!

Even the best diet can be foiled if you don’t know the nutrition basics necessary to turn your body into a fat torching machine!

Eat Clean

Have you ever fallen for the idea that filling your pantry with “diet” foods or “low fat” foods would make the difference necessary for weight loss? Trust me! You are not alone!

Today, most people have falsely believed the marketing lies that the “missing ingredient” for weight loss comes in a package. That is sadly far from the truth.

Keeping an eye on calorie intake or sticking by the rules of a diet plan is great! But even the best of diets can be sabotaged by junk food under the guise of being “healthy”.

These foods lead to people subbing their regular cokes for diet cokes and make diet cakes. They eat low-fat yogurt laden with sugar and chemicals. They chow down on processed protein bars. And all the while they wonder why they can’t stick to their diets or lose the weight. These poor people have merely fallen victim to all the diet marketing plaguing our states.

The problem is that what we really need is pure whole foods! Even though some foods might be low-calorie, if they are not whole and natural foods, then your body likely still won’t respond very well to them. Make a point of filling your plate with lean protein and piles of veggies!

Doing this will give your body the actual nutrients that your body is craving. This attacks the problem at the root source of weight gain by helping your body work well and shed extra weight on its own. Over time, your boosted metabolism will help do most of the work for you.

Eat Lots of Green Veggies

Thought that there are diets out there that will keep me from having to eat veggies? Hey, your mom told you to finish that spinach for a reason! Your body needs the rich amount of nutrients that veggies offer no matter what diet you are on!

Most successful diets out there have on thing in common:

They always encourage filling up on greens.

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Greens are low calorie and nutrient dense. They fill you up and help you feel like you ate a lot more than you actually did. They clean you out and balance your blood sugar.

I could really go on and on about them. But there’s also one aspect that many people overlook:

Greens have a very high alkalizing effect on the body.

If you have been eating diets high in fast food and fries, then your body is likely very acidic. This leads to less energy, more sickness, and more weight gain. Eating lots of greens could help rebalance your body and stop weight gain in its tracks!

If you grew up on fast food, eating greens is probably the last thing on your plate that you want to eat. That’s where you need to retrain your palate. Your brain has been convinced that sugar and saturated fat will bring you energy. When you realize that those foods are actually the source of exhaustion, you can then begin to convince your mind that the real source of energy lies in the power of vegetables.

Start by subbing veggies for some carbs or mixing greens into your meals. Follow this link for more great ideas to retrain your palate!

Don’t Fall for Fads

If you have been tracking so far, there is one thing I’ll mention that you probably saw coming:

Be on guard for fad diets.

The best diets work by getting your metabolism humming on its own, not by cutting extreme calories!

If any diets seem to offer miracle results, then be careful. The fact of the matter is, long-term weight loss is a very steady process. Consistency is key.

What can be a fad diet?

  • If it promises instant weight loss
  • If you can’t sustain it long-term
  • If you never stop being tired on it (the right diets might make you tired at first while your body is re-balancing, but long-term you will find your energy multiply).
  • If it completely ignores vital nutrients
  • If people who go on it seem to always fall off and gain more weight after they do

Step 3: Boost Your Metabolism

Now that you have pinned down the type of diet that you believe would make your body feel the best, it’s time to show you how to get your metabolism fired up!

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No matter what diet you choose, if you don’t know the basics of how to balance blood sugar and keep your fat burning machine fueled, then you will have a difficult time losing the weight.

We are about to go over how to tune up your machine and keep those fires burning.

Manage your Protein

Protein is a power tool because it optimizes fat burning and boost your metabolism. Another important aspect of protein is the fact that it is absorbed slowly giving your body a steady boost of nutrients.

No matter what diet you choose, it will be a bust if you are not ensuring proper protein intake (vegetarians can get protein through eggs, tofu, bean and rice, and quinoa).

The daily recommended intake for protein is 10-35% of your calories. Too little will make you lose muscle and will destroy your metabolism. Too high protein could result in kidney problems.

Of course, muscle is built out of amino acids, and they are found in protein. So the amount that you workout will definitely determine how much protein you will need!

Here are the basic guidelines to help you figure out your protein needs:

If you’re Sedentary:

  • Find 36% of your body weight; That’s how much protein in grams you will need!
  • Example: If I weighed 150 then I would need 54 grams of protein a day.

If you’re an endurance trainer:

  • Find 70% of your body weight; That’s how much protein in grams you will need!
  • Example: If I weighed 150 then I would need 105 grams of protein a day.

If you are a Heavy Lifter/Body Builder

  • Find 90-100% of your body weight. That’s how much protein in grams you will need!
  • Example: If I weighed 150 then I would need 135-150 grams of protein a day.
  • Make sure you are adding protein to every meal for the best results!

Time Your Meals

Did you know that skipping meals can actually make you gain weight? That means the very thing you do to try to lose weight might actually be doing the opposite for you!

The problem with skipping meals is that it can crash your metabolism and lead to bingeing later on. Why would you want to set yourself up for that hardship? No fun!

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The right diet should not be about depriving you from food. Rather, it should be about filling your body with the right nutrient dense foods.

Diets that are extremely low calorie long-term, that encourage drinking only liquids, or make you ravenously hungry are not the best options for a sustainable life-change.

If you really want to boost your fat-burning abilities then set certain time frames for eating and focusing on eating every 3-4 hours within that time frame. This method (a form of intermittent fasting) will keep you from going hungry when you shouldn’t eat, but will keep your metabolism humming during times when you need the extra energy.[1]

Know the Basics of Blood-Sugar Balance

What if I told you that Blood sugar balance could be what is sabotaging you from achieving your dream body?!

“What?” You ask, “That’s not true. I’m the one sabotaging it. I always crave sweets. I binge on food at night. I just feel so tired and cranky a few hours after eating and I just dive straight for the cookie bin.”

What if I told you that is not your fault? It’s very likely that it could actually be your body screaming that it’s off balance.

With our modern “SAD” diet (that stands for standard american diet in case you were wondering) people are finding that keeping their blood sugar stable is become more and more difficult. Insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar, can determine the difference between success or utter failure on your weight-loss endeavors. And our modern world has our insulin all out of whack!

Luckily, there are ways to take care of this — by combining your meals properly:[2]

The Bottom Line

Are you excited to start creating the body you’ve always dreamed of?

By working with your body, eating whole fresh foods, keeping portions in control, and managing your blood sugar to boost metabolism, you will be amazed to see your body seamlessly following your efforts!

Remember, weight loss is a journey. There will be times when you fail and that is okay! Like anything in life, from your family or your career, perseverance and consistency will get you where you want to be! Stay the course and be okay with steady progression.

If you know your body and what works for you, fill up on nutrients and whole foods, ensure you are balancing your blood sugar balance, and make sure that what you are doing is sustainable long-term then you will see some amazing results!

You’ve got this! Be excited, I’m right here rooting for you and here to help!

Featured photo credit: Toa Heftiba via unsplash.com

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