Are you trying to gain strength in the gym, on the mat, on the wall, or on the trail without supplementing with BCAAs? You might be inadvertently doing your body a disservice. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, necessary to grow and repair our muscle tissue, particularly following strenuous exercise. We need twenty amino acids, eleven of which are non-essential (because they can be produced by the body), and 9 of which are essential (the body cannot produce these amino acids.) But where do branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) come in?
There are three different types of BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. While BCAAs can be found in foods like chicken, beef, and eggs, taking a supplement has its advantages, especially when you’re looking to improve your athletic performance. For those who prefer not to use supplements, there is also a list of the best whole foods-sources of BCAAs. If you opt for a supplement, here are three reasons why BCAAs can really help you out:
1. Improve muscle recovery
While most of us prefer to get the benefit up front, BCAAs are often a preventative supplement—they prevent the breakdown of muscle following intense exercise. This study, which looked at whether BCAAs enhanced athletic performance, ultimately decided that while performance was not enhanced, taking BCAAs before and after an event helped to decrease the amount of muscle damage that incurred, in addition to boosting immune regulation.
2. Reduce DOMS
Those who spend time lifting weights, participating in Crossfit classes, doing strenuous yoga practices, or running mountain trails are likely familiar with DOMS—delayed onset muscle soreness. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition concluded that taking 5 mg of BCAAs (a very average supplementation amount) before exercise can reduce DOMS for several days following the activity.
3. Lower Prevalence of Obesity
BCAAs have long been touted as terrific supplements looking for better recovery, but few studies have tested associations between BCAAs and weight. A 2010 study looked at this relationship and concluded that there was an inverse relationship between BCAA supplementation and obesity, suggesting that those who take BCAAs are more likely to keep off the weight.
How do I find a good quality BCAA supplement?
BCAAs are popular in the bodybuilding world, and while toxic ingredients and strength training programs are certainly not synonymous, there does seem to be a propensity for low-calorie, low-sugar ingredients like sucrose, fructose, and artificial flavors and sweeteners. As such, it’s important that you look for a high-quality supplement, preferably from a brand that you already trust. On their own, BCAAs have a very bitter taste, so picking up the pure form might be off-putting to most people. If you prefer a powder that can be mixed in to a bottle of water, look for a supplement that uses stevia or monk fruit as the sweetener. Be careful to avoid brands that use artificial colorings and dyes.
Can I get my BCAAs from real food?
In a short answer, yes. However, it might be difficult to reach the necessary amounts by solely eating real foods, especially as these foods are often hard to digest before or after exercise. BCAAs are found in meat, with red meat boasting the highest content, as Dr. Weil explains in this article. That said, there are also small amounts in dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, in addition to grains and legumes like quinoa, baked beans, Brazil nuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds. Keep in mind that unless you’re training at a very high intensity for long periods of time, you might not need a supplement.
How much should I take?
Most BCAA products will come with a designated scoop measured out to 5 grams; this is a great place to start as a pre- or post-workout boost. I like to take a high-quality BCAA powder before a long run effort, especially if I haven’t eaten breakfast, in order to prevent the breakdown of my muscle. Men can often take 10 grams, both before and after a workout, but please consult with a professional before dosing yourself.
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