DIET DILEMMA: Do I actually need to take BCAAs?

One of the heated debates in the sports nutrition community is whether you need branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) supplements to maximize muscle gain, or whether you can get enough of them with whole foods and protein shakes.

The most discussed amino acids are the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAAs belong to a group known as essential amino acids, which means the body can't make them itself, so they have to come from an external source – namely food.

So what about BCAA supplements? Is it worth it or a waste of money? Our sports nutritionist participates.

Recommended Expert: Susan Lopez, RD, CSSD, LD, is a tactical performance nutritionist who specializes in working with military, fire, police, and first responders athletes. Lopez is a military veteran and special operations spouse whose unique experience and knowledge helps elite soldiers and community heroes stay fit and healthy. Do i need BCAAs? If so, how and when should I take them?

BCAAs can definitely be a great addition to a nutritional program, especially for athletes looking to reduce body fat and / or improve recovery and muscle maintenance.

The reason BCAAs receive so much attention is because they make up a large portion of the amino acids used by the body and have been shown to have the most notable effects on muscle protein synthesis. Leucine, in particular, is said to have the greatest effect on muscle protein synthesis, while isoleucine and valine have effects on energy and blood sugar regulation, which are essential for fat loss and general health.

BCAAs typically don't provide calories to the body like whole protein, so they're a great addition for anyone on a restricted-calorie diet for weight or fat loss and wanting to make sure they're getting enough protein and amino acids to sustain of lean muscle mass are necessary. They can be taken at any time for this purpose, but many athletes like to take them just before or during exercise. When taken during exercise, they can also help reduce fatigue. This applies not only to strength training, but also to endurance activities.

Aside from before and during exercise, when are other good times of the day to take BCAAs?

By and large, BCAAs are okay at any time of the day; However, post-exercise may be a good time to consume amino acids as muscle fibers are primed for protein synthesis due to the stress caused by exercise. However, some research suggests that it doesn't matter whether amino acids are taken before or after a workout, as long as they are available when the body needs them. In short, whenever possible, increase your daily dietary protein intake and supplement with BCAAs before, during, or after exercise.

Should I also take BCAAs on rest days?

During a hypertrophy (muscle building) training program – yes, absolutely. The effects of hypertrophy training on the muscles can last 48 hours or more, which can dictate the need for additional amino acids on board. The body builds and repairs even on days of rest.

Is there a certain ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine that I should look for in a BCAA supplement?

A ratio of 4: 1: 1 (leucine to isoleucine to valine) is the generally accepted recommendation.

Are there any special instructions I need to follow when taking BCAAs or can I just follow the directions on the product packaging?

For most people, following the container instructions is acceptable. Also, BCAAs can be safely mixed with creatine or other dietary supplements that you take before, during, or after your workout – for example, a pre-workout that doesn't contain BCAAs.

Who but those who want to get bigger, stronger, and leaner can benefit from BCAAs?

BCAAs have also been used in older populations and tactical populations where maintaining lean muscle mass is essential to health and where performance in severe conditions is essential. In general, most populations can benefit from a dietary supplement containing at least 3 grams of leucine – either alone or more often in a BCAA product – to supplement a balanced diet.

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