Let’s look at its pros and cons.

While BCAAs have their fans—who claim the sup­ple­ment pro­motes mus­cle growth, strength gains, and fat loss—nutrition experts view it with a healthy skep­ti­cism.

Nutri­tion­ist Chris More explains what BCAA’s include and whether it makes sense to take a sup­ple­ment.

Accord­ing to Bri­an St. Pierre of the renowned nutri­tion­ist Pre­ci­sion Nutri­tion, there aren’t many real ben­e­fits to tak­ing BCAAs; In the long list of foods and sup­ple­ments that help build mus­cle mass, BCAA is far from the first place.

If you’re look­ing to gain mus­cle, eat­ing whole foods, pro­tein pow­der, and even essen­tial amino acid sup­ple­ments (EAAs) are all more like­ly to help you get the most out of your work­outs, St. Pierre says.

Of course, there are excep­tions to the rule — and if you don’t mind shelling out some cash, there’s no harm in giv­ing it a try. Here’s what you need to know.

What are BCAA’s?

BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids; You should already be aware that amino acids are the build­ing blocks of pro­tein; of the 20 amino acids the body needs to func­tion, it can pro­duce 11 on its own. The remain­ing nine are called “essen­tial” and must come from food.

Among these essen­tial amino acids is a key trio that helps sup­port mus­cles: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine, in par­tic­u­lar, is a mus­cle-build­ing pow­er­house. You’ll find these three amino acids in any BCAA sup­ple­ment on the store shelf.

What is the difference between BCAA and protein?

A food is a “com­plete” pro­tein if it con­tains all nine essen­tial amino acids. Fish, chick­en, eggs, beef and even some plant sources pro­vide such a set.

BCAA dif­fers from pro­tein in that it con­tains only three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.

How­ev­er, make no mis­take, the oth­er 17 amino acids are impor­tant too, so don’t focus on just BCAA intake. “You need all 20 amino acids to build mus­cle,” says St. Pierre. “Leucine starts the process and all the oth­er amino acids fin­ish it.”

What are the benefits of BCAAs?

We hate to break it to you, but the ben­e­fits of BCAA are neg­li­gi­ble, to put it mild­ly. Sure, the mus­cle-build­ing trio of amino acids is great, but they’re also found in many oth­er foods and sup­ple­ments.

What if you don’t like eat­ing reg­u­lar foods? Even so, St. Pierre says, you’re bet­ter off tak­ing EAAs, which con­tain (you guessed it) all nine essen­tial amino acids.

“The hier­ar­chy looks like this: food sources of pro­tein, pro­tein pow­der, EAAs, then BCAA,” says St. Pierre.

How often should you take BCAA?

You don’t have to get your BCAAs in a spe­cif­ic sup­ple­ment form, but you should try to con­sume these nine essen­tial amino acids, includ­ing leucine, isoleucine, and valine, every day.

To ful­ly real­ize the mus­cle-build­ing effects of leucine, researchers sug­gest con­sum­ing 2 to 3 grams at a time, at least three times through­out the day. You can eas­i­ly get this dose from one scoop of whey pro­tein (where as much as 25 per­cent comes from BCAAs), one cup of cot­tage cheese, or a serv­ing of chick­en breast.

So do BCAAs help you build muscle?

In sup­ple­ment form, BCAA’s are unlike­ly to help you build mus­cle (although tak­ing them in rea­son­able dos­es cer­tain­ly won’t hurt). This con­clu­sion isn’t just the­o­ret­i­cal: a study pub­lished in Amino Acids (yes, there real­ly is a sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal with that name) found that sup­ple­ment­ing with leucine did not improve work­out per­for­mance.

One like­ly rea­son for the lack of results: BCAAs are already found in all the pro­tein sources you eat — chick­en, fish, eggs, beef, whey or casein pro­tein shakes, so tak­ing them in sep­a­rate sup­ple­ments is sim­ply overkill.

Final ver­dict? This is not to say that BCAA sup­ple­ments are com­plete­ly use­less. You can take them if you are not get­ting enough amino acids in your dai­ly diet.

But if you’re already con­sum­ing 2–3 grams of leucine from food sources at least 3 times a day, BCAAs won’t add any­thing (oth­er than cost).

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