The main goal of any athlete or bodybuilder is to improve endurance, build muscle, and decrease recovery time. This is why the nutrition supplement world has a strong emphasis on branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
These unique protein building blocks are thought to build and stimulate muscle growth while decreasing post-exercise soreness and improve recovery time.
Whether you’re trying to peak your performance or boost bodybuilding physique, a low effort fix such as a supplement or drink seems like a no-brainer. But limited research exists when it comes to the dosage and effectiveness of BCAA supplements.
Getting BCAAs from foods is not only a safe bet, but can also provide nutrients that further enhance your workout. The top natural food sources of BCAAs include:
Read on to be reminded of what BCAAs are, what the science says about supplements, and benefits and cooking tips for natural food sources of BCAAs.
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Natural Food Sources Of BCAAs
These foods are excellent sources of the BCAAs: leucine, valine, and isoleucine.
They also contain other helpful nutrients for health and fitness. Here, we’ll discuss each food’s additional benefits as well as a helpful cooking tip.
Chicken is one of the most popular foods among the fitness world. It’s an excellent source of protein, which can help promote muscle building and maintaining muscle. Different parts of chicken, wings versus breast for instance, have different nutritional values.
Chicken breast is one of the best for bodybuilders or athletes looking to stay lean while muscular. One chicken breast has about 55 grams of protein. Chicken thighs and wings have higher fat. This can be a good option if you’re looking to gain weight.
Chicken breast can get dry when overcooked. Use a cooking thermometer to make sure the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Putting parchment paper over the chicken when roasting can help act like the skin, keeping it moist.
Eggs are known as a gold standard for protein bioavailability, or how well our bodies absorb the nutrients it contains. Eggs have all of the essential amino acids which can be easily digested and absorbed. Research shows that eating the whole egg, including the yolk, can stimulate muscle growth and muscle repair more than just the egg white. The yolk also contains important vitamins and minerals.
Hard boil an egg and take it as a post-workout snack. To make the perfect medium to hard boiled egg, bring water to a boil in a pot. Use a spoon to place eggs gently in. Let simmer for 8-9 minutes. Place eggs in cool water for about 1 minute. Then peel and enjoy!
Red meat is one of the highest sources of iron. Iron is important for carrying oxygen throughout the body. This can help fight fatigue and improve workouts. It’s also rich in magnesium which can help testosterone production. Testosterone is shown to improve protein synthesis.
Too much meat, especially the high fat and processed kinds (sausage, deli meat) is associated with cardiovascular disease. Aim for high quality sources such as organic and grass fed, which naturally have higher levels of heart healthy omega-3.
Make your burgers healthier by adding chopped or grated vegetables. Chop onion and mushrooms or grate carrots and heat them in a pan until soft. Let them cool then mix into ground beef, using a bowl. Form into burgers and cook as usual. The burger patties will come out juicy with extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Salmon is known as a “superfood” since it’s an excellent source of lean protein and contains omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 is associated with its incredible heart health and brain benefits. It can also help exercise induced pain because of its powerful inflammation fighting properties.
If available, cook the salmon with the skin on. The skin provides a layer between a pan or grill. Start cooking with the skin side down and let it crisp. Try not to overcook by cooking the majority of the time on the skin side. The flesh should turn from translucent pink to opaque.
Turkey is one food responsible for the Thanksgiving sleepies. This is because along with the BCAAs, it contains an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan helps your body create serotonin which is a chemical that can make you feel relaxed and ease pain.
Turkey is also high in B vitamins which are important for fitness and performance. Active individuals with low levels of B vitamins have been shown to have decreased performance of exercise at high levels.
Factory-farmed and conventional turkeys typically contain antibiotics and are injected with salt and preservatives. Aim for the organic and pasture-raised versions whenever possible.
Related Article: 12 Natural Food Sources of Glutamine (And, How Much To Eat)
Yogurt is an excellent source of calcium which helps keep bones strong and muscles contracting. Since yogurt is fermented, it also contains healthy bacteria which help the digestive system. Dairy such as yogurt and milk have a good balance of protein and carbohydrates which make for a great post-workout snack. This is of course as long as you don’t have an allergy or sensitivity to milk or lactose.
Aim for the plain versions of yogurt, without added sugar or flavoring. Add fresh or frozen fruit for some natural sweetness. Or consider using yogurt instead of milk to naturally thicken your smoothie.
Tuna is rich in easily digestible proteins. Along with salmon, tuna also consists of omega-3 fatty acids, helping improve blood cholesterol levels and inflammation. It also has vitamin D which is important for brain function and bone strength.
Canned tuna can make for an easy to-go snack or good travel companion since it’s non-perishable. Throw canned tuna on a salad or with pasta, and voila! Just be wary of certain types that contain higher toxic metals. Light tuna tends to have less mercury.
Nuts are a good plant-based source of BCAAs. Peanuts are one of the best nut sources. They also contain healthy fats, protein and fiber as well as vitamins and minerals such as potassium and B vitamins. Potassium is an electrolyte that can get depleted when you sweat.
Peanuts are extremely easy to take with you as a pre- or post-workout snack. They pair great with some fruit. Peanut butter is also a great option. Just aim for the natural types, because many commercial products have added sugar and harmful hydrogenated fats. Check the label and look for the brands with just peanuts and salt.
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Vegetarian & Vegan Sources Of BCAAs
As you may notice, many of the BCAA food sources are animal foods.
As Precision Nutrition explains, our bodies only store some protein at a time. So we need to constantly replenish protein. Since most plant-based protein sources lack at least one of the essential amino acids (more on this to come), your best bet is to consume a variety of plant-based protein sources at regular intervals.
Natural vegetarian sources of BCAAs include:
Vegan sources of BCAAs include:
Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
Nuts (pistachios, peanuts, cashews, almonds)
Whole grains (brown rice, whole grain bread).
Related Article: Natural Sources of Creatine
What Are Amino Acids?
In order to understand what BCAAs are, let’s start with what amino acids are.
Amino acids are protein building blocks. There are a total of twenty amino acids that comprise muscle protein and nine of which are considered to be essential amino acids (EAAs). Your body can’t make sufficient amounts of EEAs, so it’s necessary to get them from a balanced diet.
Essential amino acids your body can’t manufacture enough of these, so you need to get them from your diet.
Conditionally essential amino acids your body may not always be able to make as much as you need. For instance, you may need more during stress or illness.
Nonessential amino acids your body can usually make enough of these through other nutrients.
In order to make new muscle, you need all the EAAs along with the eleven non-essential amino acids (NEAAs) in adequate amounts.
|Essential amino acids
|Conditionally essential amino acids
|Nonessential amino acids
Adapted from: PrecisionNutrition
What Are BCAAs?
The branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, valine, and isoleucine. These are part of the nine essential amino acids, meaning that you must get them from your diet.
They differ from other amino acids in the way that the initial step of breakdown does not take place in the liver. This means that BCAAs in circulation (your blood) can rapidly increase after intake. This makes them readily available for muscle tissues. Science suggests that this gives them a unique advantage as a nutritional formula when compared to others that are targeted to the muscle or brain.
Science presents that BCAAs account for 35-40% of essential amino acids in the body protein and 14-18% of total amino acids in muscle proteins. The muscle mass of humans is about 40% of body weight, so a large portion is BCAAs.
Leucine is a precursor (a substance needed to form another) for muscle protein synthesis and also plays a role as a regulator in cell signalling pathways that are involved in protein synthesis. This means it’s not only a building block of protein, but also a regulator of protein metabolism.
Leucine in particular is a popular supplement for bodybuilders since it’s involved with muscle building which may help optimize a workout. In one study, it was suggested to improve endurance and power.
Valine can be created from pyruvic acid, a byproduct of the breakdown of carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Valine helps provide muscles with extra glucose for energy production during intense exercise, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
One study, conducted on animals, found that valine was effective for maintaining liver glycogen (stored glucose energy) and blood sugar which helped reduce fatigue during exercise.
In addition to its contributions to muscle building, isoleucine also helps with the growth and healing process. It regulates blood sugar which can impact your overall energy levels. It also makes hemoglobin, the protein molecule in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen to your body tissues.
Related Article: Top 13 High Thermic Effect Foods To Boost Your Metabolism
BCAA Supplements: What The Science Says
It was previously thought that BCAAs have a unique ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Much of the research on BCAAs has been conducted on rats. These older studies supported this notion, yet few studies have been done on oral consumption of just BCAAs.
In a scientific research review, no studies showed muscle protein benefit when humans took orally-ingested isolated BCAAs. In fact, two studies actually found that BCAAs decreased muscle protein synthesis as well as protein breakdown. So at this time, we can’t say for certain whether BCAAs stimulate muscle growth or breakdown.
Another study investigated the effect of BCAA supplementation on recovery from eccentric exercise on twenty males. The participants either received BCAA supplements or a placebo. As a result, the BCAA supplemented men reported less soreness at the 48 hour and 72 hour time period. This study suggested that BCAA supplementation may reduce muscle soreness following muscle-damaging exercise.
Another study examined BCAA supplementation and its impact on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and muscle fatigue from squat exercises. The results showed that BCAA supplementation prior to the exercise decreased DOMS and muscle fatigue occurring a few days after exercise.
In one study, participants taking BCAA supplements had reduced exercise fatigue. Two groups of college-age males were compared, one group took BCAA supplement and the other a placebo, and asked to cycle to exhaustion. The researchers found that the group who took BCAAs had lower levels of serotonin. This is a chemical that plays a role in exercise fatigue.
Do You Need BCAA Supplements?
Since we learned that BCAAs are present in high levels in many protein foods, especially animal protein, supplementation is not necessary for most people. Some cases that call for supplementing BCAAs would be if you’re not able to get enough from diet or suffer from a medical condition such as liver disease.
Since some research links increase BCAA levels to disease such as diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease, it’s important to consult your physician before taking BCAA supplements and making sure you don’t overdo it.
TYPE AND CONCENTRATION
Most people get enough BCAAs from food. If you do need to supplement, it’s best to take all three together. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research to confirm the exact dosage of BCAA supplements.
Look for a ratio of 2:1:1 of leucine:isoleucine:valine. This can be helpful since leucine has been shown to be particularly helpful for muscle synthesis and curbing the breakdown of muscle protein.
It’s important to pick a reputable brand which has been through third-party testing and uses high quality ingredients.
Some research suggests that BCAA levels peak about 30 minutes after consuming them. But research is not conclusive enough to recommend specifics. When eating, older theories explain that protein foods should be consumed within a short window after exercise of up to an hour. But new research is suggesting that this window of time is more flexible.
As described by PrecisionNutrition, during digestion we break down protein we eat into individual amino acids. They contribute to a plasma pool. This pool acts as a storage reserve of amino acids that circulate in our blood. It trades amino acids and proteins in our cells and provides a supply of amino acids as they’re needed. This is why we need a variety of amino acids through food sources rather than individual isolated amino acids.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Remember that these BCAAs are just a piece of the whole picture. In order to support a healthy body and optimal workouts, it’s essential to get a variety of amino acids and enough protein.
The amount of protein you need depends on factors such as your age, gender, and activity level. The standard recommendation for protein is 0.8 g per kg (0.36 g per pound) of body weight. This is the amount required to prevent protein deficiency for healthy adults. For optimal functioning and higher activity levels, we require more.
If you’re doing high-intensity training or powerlifting, it’s best to aim for 1.4-2g per kg of body weight. In addition to increasing total calorie intake.
Learn more here: The Powerlifting Diet: Eating For Strength (Definitive Guide)
BCAA supplements may help promote muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle growth over time. BCAA drinks or supplements may make it easy to get them in, but since research is inconclusive, it’s best to get them from food.
When you get leucine, valine, and isoleucine from natural protein sources, you’re also benefiting from protein, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins and minerals needed to support a healthy body and killer workout.
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.