Most of us know the importance of protein for building muscle and fueling our bodies. However, it’s also important to know that all protein is not created equal.
Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids.
Amino acids created by your body are called non-essential amino acids. In contrast, amino acids that your body cannot make are called essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). These amino acids must be consumed as a part of your diet.
If you’re looking to improve your athletic performance and build muscle, you may question if EAAs or BCAAs are better for you.
In this article, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of amino acids and explain the difference between essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids. We’ll also discuss how each one impacts your overall fitness.
Let’s dive in!
- Essential amino acids cannot be made by your body and must be consumed through your diet. They are needed for your body to function correctly. The three EAAs that primarily impact athletic performance are called branched-chain amino acids.
- BCAA supplements bypass the liver and are rapidly absorbed in your muscle tissue. They can provide instant energy, promote muscle growth, prevent muscle breakdown, and promote weight loss.
- BCAAs are crucial to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and promote muscle growth.
AMINO ACIDS - WHAT ARE THEY?
Amino Acids are the building blocks of proteins in your body. When you eat a protein-rich meal, the protein is digested into amino acids. From there, your body uses amino acids to break down food, repair body tissue, synthesize hormones and neurotransmitters, and grow.
The twenty amino acids are broken down into three categories:
- Essential amino acids
- Nonessential amino acids
- Conditionally essential amino acids
Now that we know what amino acids are, let’s dig deeper into each type’s role in your body.
ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS
The nine essential amino acids are:
As mentioned above, your body cannot create essential amino acids. This is because our bodies lack the metabolic pathways to synthesize them.
EAAs are responsible for many functions in your body, including promoting muscle growth, enhancing energy levels, regulating your immune and digestive systems, and promoting healthy skin, hair, and nails.
Out of the nine essential amino acids, three are classified as branched-chain amino acids.
BRANCHED-CHAIN AMINO ACIDS
The three BCAAs are:
Branched-chain amino acids are a type of essential amino acid, which means your body cannot make them. It is crucial to get them from your diet.
These essential amino acids are referred to as branched-chain because they are the only three amino acids with a slightly different chemical structure.
Their side chain “branches” off, allowing pure BCAAs to bypass the liver and metabolize in the muscle tissue.
BCAAs also account for a large chunk of our body’s total amino acids. They make up around 35-40% of all essential amino acids present in your body and 14-18% of those found in your muscle.
They are frequently supplemented among athletes because they help your muscles recover, prevent loss of muscle mass, and improve performance. BCAAs also provide long-lasting energy and may support weight loss.
Of the three BCAAs, leucine plays the most significant role in your body’s ability to build muscle protein.
However, all of the BCAAs are essential for those looking to build or maintain muscle.
NON-ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS
The eleven non-essential amino acids are:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
Unlike EAAs, your body is capable of synthesizing non-essential amino acids. Most of them are synthesized from glucose.
Non-essential amino acids support your immune function, hormone synthesis, tissue growth and repair, and red blood cell formation.
They are equally as important as BCAAs and EAAs, and all three must be present for your body to function properly. However, as long as you’re eating a healthy diet, your body will take care of making these amino acids!
When faced with a severe injury or high-stress levels, your body has trouble producing seven of the eleven non-essential amino acids.
The seven conditionally essential amino acids are:
These are known as conditionally essential amino acids because they become essential during stressful circumstances.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE...
BCAAs and EAAs must be consumed through your diet. However, the main difference between the two is the way each group functions within your body.
BCAAs are needed to decrease muscle soreness, post-workout fatigue, and muscle breakdown. They also help to promote muscle growth.
EAAs are needed throughout the entire body for it to function properly. In contrast, BCAAs mainly target areas that directly impact athletic performance.
Let’s take a look at each BCAA and its function within your body.
- Prevents the breakdown of muscle protein
- Promotes wound healing
- Helps regulate blood glucose
- Aids in muscle repair and protein synthesis
- Supports a healthy immune function
- Promotes healthy energy levels
- Aids in muscle metabolism
- Supports energy production
- Stimulates muscle growth
- Promotes muscle regeneration
Although everyone needs BCAAs, you can see why they are especially critical for those who train regularly. However, it’s important to note that you need to include a balance of all types of amino acids in your diet to effectively build muscle and support a healthy recovery.
Studies show that we should take branched-chain amino acids along with essential amino acids for muscle building.
EAA FOOD SOURCES
Fortunately, most of us can get enough essential amino acids through the foods that we eat. Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are referred to as complete proteins.
Here are a few high-quality sources of complete proteins:
- Dairy products
- Chia seed
It’s important to get your EAAs from high-quality food sources to help maintain lean muscle mass, boost muscle protein synthesis, and decrease muscle protein breakdown rates.
Foods such as beans, rice, and nuts are considered incomplete proteins because they lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids.
If you’re following a plant-based diet, be sure to eat a variety of plant-based proteins to ensure you meet your EAA requirements.
BCAA FOOD SOURCES
BCAAs are mainly found in foods containing protein. They are highly concentrated in animal proteins. Consuming protein-rich foods will not only provide you with BCAAs to build muscle and power through your workouts, but you’ll also get other important nutrients.
Here are a few food sources of BCAAs:
- Chicken breast
- Whey protein powder
- Low-fat milk
- Canned tuna
- Greek yogurt
Chicken breast is one of the best food sources of BCAAs for athletes looking to stay lean while building muscle. Eggs are another great source of BCAAs and are known for their bioavailability.
However, it’s vital to get BCAAs from your food as well as a high-quality BCAA supplement.
WHY YOU SHOULD TAKE BCAAS
Even if you believe you are getting in enough EAAs from your diet, taking a high quality BCAA supplement has its advantages.
Taking BCAAs before or during your workout can increase the rate of protein synthesis, reduce muscle breakdown, and prevent muscle damage.
As we mentioned earlier, pure BCAAs bypass your liver and are immediately broken down to produce instant energy. The longer you work out, the more BCAAs will be used by your body for fuel.
By drinking a BCAA beverage, you’ll continue to have steady energy to train more intensely for a longer period. This is crucial when it comes to improving your body composition.
Studies suggest that BCAAs may also support fat loss while maintaining lean muscle mass.
Let’s discuss the scientific evidence behind the benefits of BCAAs.
BCAAS FOR MUSCLE GROWTH
It’s important to keep in mind that, to build muscle mass, you need to include other essential amino acids and overall adequate protein intake in your diet.
However, one study published in 2017 observed ten young, resistance-trained men. They completed two trials, either ingesting 5.6 grams of BCAAs or a placebo nine following resistance training.
The study found that those who consumed the BCAAs alone after resistance training stimulated a 22% greater muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis response than the placebo.
BCAAS FOR MUSCLE RECOVERY
BCAAs are scientifically proven to fight fatigue, promote muscle recovery, and improve performance among athletes.
A review from 2017 of eight studies found that branched-chain amino acid supplements were superior to passive recovery or rest in promoting muscle recovery and reducing muscle soreness after exhaustive exercise.
Another study looked at 16 resistance-trained participants. BCAA supplements improved performance and muscle recovery compared to a placebo.
BCAAS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Many users report decreased appetite after BCAA consumption. There have also been studies to support the use of BCAAs for weight loss.
One eight-week study in 36 strength-trained men suggested that supplementing with 14 grams of BCAAs per day significantly reduced body fat percentage compared to sports drinks and whey protein. The BCAA group also had increased lean muscle mass and strength when performing a squat compared to the other groups.
Another study found that competitive wrestlers who consumed a high protein, reduced-calorie diet combined with BCAAs lost 3.5 more pounds than those given a soy protein supplement over 19 days.
Wrestlers who consumed BCAAs also lost .6% more body fat than the soy protein group despite consuming slightly less protein each day.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF BCAAS?
BCAAS are necessary to increase muscle protein synthesis, energy, and metabolism. They also support muscle recovery after a workout, prevent muscle protein breakdown, improve high-intensity training sessions, and support weight loss while preserving lean muscle mass.
WHEN SHOULD I TAKE BCAAS?
While your body can benefit from BCAAs during any time of the day, the most critical time to take them is 10-20 minutes before your workout or as an intra workout supplement.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF EAAS?
EAAs are responsible for many processes throughout your body. EAAs help us digest food, maintain long-term protein synthesis, and prevent muscle protein breakdown. They also are vital for tissue repair and nutrient absorption.
WHEN SHOULD I TAKE EAAS?
Similar to taking a BCAA supplement, your body can benefit from taking an EAA supplement during any time of the day.
However, if you are looking to maximize athletic performance, you should take EAAs right before, during, or right after your workout.
ARE BCAAS AND EAAS SAFE?
Although there are no studies to evaluate the long-term effects of taking large amounts of amino acids daily, BCAAs and EAAs are generally safe. Be sure to stay within the manufacturer’s daily recommended amounts to ensure safety.
Amino acids are the building blocks of life.
While many of us directly associate them with stimulating muscle protein synthesis and building muscle mass, amino acids are essential for many processes throughout our bodies.
To promote muscle gain, improve physical performance, and prevent muscle breakdown, we must include essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids in our diet.