Whether somewhere on the internet, at the gym, or in a supplement store, I'm sure you've heard someone raving about their BCAA supplement. But what does science say about the usefulness of BCAAs?
Well first, lets talk briefly about what BCAAs are.
Protein is made up of amino acids. BCAA stands for branched chain amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids, but BCAA refers to the three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Since your body cannot produce BCAAs on its own, yes, you do need to consume them; HOWEVER, that does not mean you need to purchase supplements. BCAAs are found in foods such as chicken, fish, eggs, lentils... pretty much most protein sources. As long as you're getting adequate protein, you're getting enough BCAAs.
So you may be thinking, "what if I don't get adequate protein?" My suggestion for that is to supplement with whey protein. Whey protein provides all 9 essential amino acids, therefore, would be the more optimal choice [1.].
What about the other benefits of BCAA powders though?
The other fabulous things you've heard that BCAA supplement powders can do are probably false or exaggerated..
1. Some people think they are useful while fasted or while doing fasted training. Sorry, but they aren't. Many people who do Intermittent Fasting believe they are going to lose muscle if they don't take BCAAs. Skipping a meal isn't going to kill your gains. Again, get in your protein in your eating window and you will be fine- No BCAAs necessary. Whether you train fasted or not makes no difference in body composition; you still don't need the BCAAs. [2,3,6,7}
2. Oh, by the way, if you are supplementing with BCAAs, you aren't fasting. For some odd reason, it is believed that BCAAs are calorie free, which is NOT the case. So for those of who chug these gallon jugs with BCAAs while "fasted"... yea, you're not fasted. BCAAs actually have around 6 calories per gram . So for one scoop of BCAA powder, you're consuming approximately 60 calories (even though your nutrition label most likely says 0, or negligible calories). Loopholes in the FDA regulations allow manufacturers to list BCAAs as zero calories .
3. Another reason some people take them is because they believe taking them while training is beneficial and can improve performance. There is no scientific evidence that supports this claim. BCAA supplementation does not increase performance, strength, or athletic ability in any way. [6,8,9]
4.. A lot of people take BCAAs thinking it will cause fat loss, while some think it will promote extra muscle growth. The only way to lose fat is with a caloric deficit. Ingesting additional calories isn't going to magically make you lose extra fat. To build muscle, yes protein plays a major role; but science does not support the claim that BCAAs increase or speed up muscle gain. [7,10,11]
The Bottom Line
To put it simply just consume adequate protein daily. If you need to supplement to get sufficient protein, use a complete source such as whey. Science says there is no added benefit to taking a BCAA supplement when you hit your protein goal. Save that money and use towards your grocery bill.
Arielle is a certified fitness trainer, certified sports nutritionist, fitness enthusiast, and bikini competitor who has been involved in fitness since 2011. She also is studying for her Doctorate of Health Science in Nutrition and Exercise Science.