Podcast Episode 52 Transcript – BCAAs & EAA Supplements

Leah

Hello, and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. I am Leah Higl. And I’m here with my co-host, Aidan Muir. And today we’re talking about another supplement and that’s BCAAs or EAAs. So, Branched-chain amino acids and essential amino acids. So, this is one that’s quite popular. If you go into any gym, you’ll see people with [00:00:30] BCAAs in their water bottles. It’s been popular for so many years. But we’re going to go through today, what’s the evidence behind it? Is it effective? Is it worth your money? And just talk through it bit by bit.

Aidan

Yeah. And I think the reason why it’s so popular, is you can make a lot of theoretical sense of it. Going through it, and what I mean by that, is there are 20 amino acids total. Nine [00:01:00] of these are considered essential. Which means we can’t create them in our own body. So those are essential amino acids. And three of those essential amino acids are considered BCAAs, branched-chain amino acids. And those ones in particular are leucine, isoleucine and Valine. And obviously, the essential amino acids one, that makes sense. Right? Because we can’t produce in our body. Let’s give our body what it can’t produce itself. It can produce the other 11. You can understand why that makes sense.

Branched-chain amino [00:01:30] acids, they technically make up about 35% of the amino acids in our muscle. So you can also make an argument for that being like, “Hey, these are just three of the 20 and they make up 35%. They’re clearly more important for muscle growth based on that.” And even digging a little bit deeper. Leucine in particular, is probably the most strongly linked with muscle growth. Because we’ve got all these things like Leucine thresholds. And you’ve got to get a certain amount of leucine to optimize muscle protein synthesis. So that is what BCAAs are in essential amino acids. And [00:02:00] that feeds into why people, or why you could propose some benefits for them.

Leah

Yeah. I can definitely see why people would feed into the marketing of branched-chain amino acids, and essential amino acids. Because in theory it makes a lot of sense. So the proposed benefits of these kinds of supplements, is that it’s going to help you build more muscle. Because you’re getting these amino acids, and these building blocks of muscle that you can’t produce in your own body. So, that seems to make sense.

But there [00:02:30] are also other benefits that are often proposed like; reduction in muscle soreness or DOMS as being one, improvements in muscle retention while dieting, and also reduced fatigue during exercise. So there’s lots of different benefits that these supplement companies claim. The mechanism kind of makes sense, if you think it through. But I don’t recommend them. So, we’ll definitely be going through why that is.

Aidan

Yeah. So I guess why don’t you recommend them? Why don’t [00:03:00] I recommend them often? Going into that, the first one is I’ll call it cost to reward ratio. And that’s a real roundabout of saying, there’s other ways you can achieve these outcomes. So there’s no inherent advantage to BCAAs or essential amino acids, over getting a sufficient amount of total protein from a variety of sources. Because other sources of protein also contain BCAAs, and they also contain essential amino acids.

One [00:03:30] example of this, if we’re looking just at total protein containing these amino acids, you could more easily get 25 grams of protein for example, from a scoop of protein powder, than you could from BCAA’s or essentially amino acids supplement. Because typically a serve of those supplements is five to 10 grams. So clearly it’s easy to get that. It’s cheaper to get that through that. And then also you could just make the argument for food as well, being they also contain an abundance of these amino acids [00:04:00] depending on which option you go with.

And with the essential amino acids logic, once again, it makes sense until you dig a bit deeper. Just because we cannot physically create an amino acid in our own body, doesn’t necessarily mean that is a rate limiting factor in muscle growth. Because we could create non-essential amino acids in our body. We can physically do that. But does that mean that we are going to naturally be producing those amino acids in the exact [00:04:30] optimal amount for what we need?

And looking at that from a research perspective, there is research showing that when you compare whey protein to BCAAs, with the total BCAA content match. Meaning there’s obviously more total protein in the whey protein in this example. Muscle protein synthesis is 50% higher in the whey protein group. Which is an example of how, if you add more total protein containing other amino acids, in addition to branched amino acids. The outcomes [00:05:00] in terms of muscle growth are still higher. So it’s not just those three.

Leah

Yeah. So it’s still a good idea when we’re thinking about a bout of protein to get in not only your essential amino acids, but also the amino acids that you could theoretically make in your own body. But we know based on the outcome that it’s good to get them all together, probably from a food source.

Aidan

Yeah, for sure.

Leah

Yeah. What I think is interesting about this topic, and where it can be a little bit, I guess, misleading. Is that a lot of the research looks quite promising.

Aidan

If you just looked individually, you’d be like, “Oh, this study worked. This study worked.”

Leah

Oh yeah, muscle… like people were able to gain more muscle when they gave them BCAAs, or essential amino acid supplementation. But the thing about a good majority of this research showing these positive outcomes, is that these participants already had suboptimal intakes of protein, anyway. So sure, if we have a bunch of people with suboptimal protein intake for muscle protein synthesis, and muscle [00:06:00] gain. And then you add extra essential amino acids onto that. It is probably going to improve their outcomes a little bit. But what would be even better is if they just met their total protein requirements, and had it through whole protein sources, or complete protein sources that contain these things as well.

Aidan

Yeah. Protein quality and stuff like that in terms of the amino acid breakdown, clearly matters more under a suboptimal intake. And then it also like, if you had a low intake and added that on top, [00:06:30] the BCAAs, you’re actually still increasing protein intake. Which was already suboptimal to start off with. But it’s getting-

Closer, yeah. I don’t know. That’s not a dig at companies, because obviously the research is done by supplement companies.

But there is that, there’s potentially publication bias. There is all of these things. But all that really matters and all that we really care about, is if you do have a total protein intake that is high enough, there seems to be no inherent advantage. And that’s what we’re looking at, we’re looking at it from that perspective. And if you’re making the argument about like, “Okay, well what if you have a suboptimal protein intake?” Then [00:07:00] I would counter that argument by saying, “There’s easier ways to increase your protein.”

Leah

And probably slightly cheaper ways-

Aidan

And that’s the cost to reward ratio, which I was talking about. I didn’t really make sense then, but that’s what I’m getting at, yeah. So I guess we should go into a more nuanced look and be like, “Is there any situation ever that we would recommend them?”

Leah

Yeah. And I guess again, for me working in more plant-based spectrum, working with a lot of vegan athletes. Is that a lot of these people are having incomplete protein sources [00:07:30] that are lacking, or limited by certain essential amino acids. That if you supplemented those things, their outcomes might be slightly improved. So at the end of the day, reaching their total protein intake and what’s recommended is the most important. But there might be times where I recommend leucine supplementation in particular.

So that’s a certain branched-chain amino acid, that’s known for triggering muscle protein synthesis, and leads to better outcomes when it’s in [00:08:00] certain amounts. And so looking at it from a nuanced perspective, yeah, I guess there are times where I do recommend essential amino acids. It’s usually not in a BCAA supplement. It usually is just leucine, but there is an argument to be made, that they might help if you were getting a predominant amount of your protein from incomplete sources.

Aidan

Yeah. And that was the first one that came to my mind, as well. That makes sense. You could make an argument for that and it does make sense. The other one that I think of, and this is not overly nuanced. This is [00:08:30] the pro-science in me or whatever. Is, well, firstly, people who just like the taste of it. Like if they just like it. I don’t know. Some people struggle drinking water, maybe that adds flavor to the water, and they want to have that. So that’s an option for sure. And then the other one, the Mobro Science view, is the people who just are like, “No, but I just train better when I have it” Like, “I just feel better when I have it.”

Because I think about the whole concept of a power lifting session, for example is two hours. And a power lift who absolutely loves eating all the time. If they haven’t eaten for [00:09:00] two hours before they trained. And then they train, there’s a four hour gap without eating. Sometimes having BCAAs or something like that makes them feel better towards the end of their workout. I don’t recommend it. I don’t go out of my way to recommend it. But if somebody’s like, “Yeah, I just like doing that.”

Leah

Yeah. I’m never going to be like, “No, stop taking BCAAs.” It’s not going to be to your detriment. It’s just, if you’re doing all the other stuff from protein intake perspective, it probably doesn’t add anything to your outcomes. Unless it’s like that placebo. In which case placebos, I mean it’s still [00:09:30] happening. Right?

Even if it is a placebo, so it’s still benefiting you, even if it’s just based on what your brain’s thinking. But, yeah, there’s not a time. I’d be like, “Nah, just take me out.”

Aidan

Yeah, for sure. So we’ll wrap things up there. This has been episode 52 of the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. I found out the other day that on Spotify, it’s actually really easy to leave a rating. You can’t leave a review, but there’s a star thing.

So if you’re listening on Spotify, obviously, if you’re on apple, please leave a review [00:10:00] as well. But if you’re on Spotify, can you please look for that star thing and leave a rating too? I’d really appreciate that. I’m sure Leah would too. Thank you.