BCAA’s: A Look at Dosing and Selection For Various Populations

The subject of protein, amino acids, and BCAA’s is a loaded one. To keep this from becoming a 10 part series, I am going to focus on the use of Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) in supplementation for various populations.

Quick Overview Of What BCAA’s Are

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are essential amino acids that can be oxidized in skeletal muscle. It is three of the eight essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids have been shown to pull overtime work from the immune systems to protein synthesis.

In supplementation use, much of the testing and use is done to help aid in slowing progression of ALS (See: Often Awesome) and help increase of appetite in cancer patients. Notice that it increases appetite and does not provide satiation. BCAA’s are often sold as dieting down supplements. While it may have protection advantages in some cases, the story doesn’t add up for most. In athletics and body composition, their results have been mixed due to the fact that a well rounded diet should provide you with adequate intake of BCAA’s. The more interesting/questionable angles are in extreme or out of the box dieting situations. That is where today’s focus is going to be put.

Natural Sources

Contrary to popular company hype, BCAA’s are not a supplement only product. They are found in your everyday foods as well as within protein supplements. All animal protein sources contain a “complete” and high level of BCAA’s. I say complete because some non-animal protein sources have low levels to the degree of not being very high on their own. Eating just veggies or beans in their natural source may not be enough protein aid on their own without the aid of additional supplements if in a low calorie diet. I will get to this in a little bit. In short, any protein supplement, even vegan, should cover you BCAA’s.

Daily Need Per Individual

To look at the amount of BCAA’s you need, you look at what is recommended in an amino acid overall profile. BCAA’s aren’t the only amino acids you need. Protein recommendations are still not set in stone by any one organization and won’t likely be for sometime. Even then, you have different populations to take into consideration. For example, male bodybuilders will require a completely different protein intake than a 40yr-old female who exercises 2-3 times a week. Add breastfeeding to the mix and you get a different set of recommendations. These are currently the World Health Organizations recommendations -

The thing that this doesn’t take into large consideration is the need for increase protein (and BCAA’s) particularly for strength or endurance based athletes. Typically what we see with amino acids is the more you put strain on the body, the more you need.

A study from Tipton and Wolfe suggest numbers upward to 1.3 x BW for strength athletes. Anecdotal evidence can suggest higher. There is also evidence to suggest sedentary, while not needing as much as a strength athlete, needs more especially if health issues are a concern, not to mention aging. It would seem at current evidence these would be good recommendations based on a few different groups of populations.

Minimum Recommendation For Protein Intake Per Group

Inactive Adult -.6 – .8g x bw
Strength Athlete – 1.0 -1.2g x bw
Endurance Athlete – .8 – 1.0g x bw
Bodybuilder – 1.2-1.4g x bw

Points of Adjustment to Consider

-Elderly increase by 5% on recommendation
-Post-Pregnancy increase by 5% on recommendation
-Greater than 40% daily deficits increase by 5-10% for muscle sparing

Where And When Does BCAA’s Supplementation Fit In?

As you can see, if you are taking in your daily recommended dosage of protein, there is really no need for BCAA’s. You more than cover your sources for all essential amino acids, even with a non-animal based protien intake. That being said, there are occasions where the use of BCAA’s supplementation makes sense.

Potential Use #1 – Supplementation for special diets/health problems in a deficit (including vegan/allergy special diets)

If you find yourself in a situation where you are on a specialty diet due to health reasons or cannot get a selection of whole food amino acids, then supplementing with protein powder/BCAA’s is an option. You can still get quality BCAA’s from your protein supplements, but at times it may or may not be realistic in your situation. If healing from a surgery, ill, or trying to recover from a condition then it may be wise to increase supplementation as an safeguard. 5 grams is a general recommendation based upon your other protein needs. If training increase to 10 grams.

Potential Use #2 – Pre-Workout in fasting state

There is a lot of interesting research in the filed of fasted training and intermittent fasting. Some people (some don’t) perform better with fasted training while using BCAA’s supplementation. No matter how you look at fasted training or if you believe it is a smart move to make – its a good insurance plan. 5 -10g pre-workout is a start recommendation.

Potential Use #3 – Cases of extreme dieting down or fasting if not using a protein sparring modified fast diet

This somewhat begs the question of “why?” but there are cases, especially for religious holidays and what not that require odder dieting habits. Adding 10g – 15g supplementation (space out in 5 gram doses through the day)  in deficits greater than 50% may provide a safeguard.

One Additional Anecdote About Those With Faster Metabolic Adaptions

I have been experimenting and discussing with clients the use of BCAA’s in those who usually find very faster metabolic adaptions or health related problems to dieting down (mostly to decrease of fats/carbohydrates). The results have been interesting in that with decrease protein intake to increase fat/carbohydrate intake, slowing of fat loss has decreased as well as some side effects (sleeping problems/menstrual problems). Strength numbers and muscle retention slightly increased as well as fatigue decreasing. There is currently no peer reviewed research to support this in direct relation to BCAA’s, but there is lots of research related to decrease of metabolic adaptation in a deficit with the aid of higher carbohydrates. The problem is the more carbohydrates you intake (or fat), the less protein. Something has to give in the macronutrient department and protein isn’t something you want to let go of in a deficit when muscle protection is a concern. This may help with that problem for some. Expect more research on this in the future.

Resources

If you aren’t Vegan or have any allergies or intolerances this is pretty easy for you. You can find BCAA’s or protein powder at every turn.  In general for most protein needs I recommend Trueprotein.com. You can mix and match whatever you want and for a extremely low cost. I have no affiliation with trueprotein.com

Supplemental Sources – Protein Powders For Dietary Allergies or Vegans

These protein were selected because of taste and quality. Cost was not factored.

Gemma Protein Pea Isolate non-GMO – True Protein.com
Hemp Protein Powder – True Protein.com
Rice Protein Concentrate non-GMO – True Protein
Soy Protein Isolate non-GMO – True Protein.com

SunWarrior Protein – SunWarrior.com
Metagenics UltraMeal Rice Protein
Jarrow Formulas Iso-Rich Soy
Twinlab Vege Fuel Powder

Supplemental Sources – Allergy Free / Vegan BCAA Supplements

Purple Wrath
IBCAA
Scivation Xtend
MRM-USA
STS BCAA
ALLMAX Nutrition
Ajinomoto Instantized BCAA

Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. I do not claim to cure any cause, condition or disease. I do not provide medical aid or nutrition for the purpose of health or disease and claim to be a doctor or dietitian. This is merely an opinion blog. Read full disclaimer here - http://www.leighpeele.com/disclaimer

20 Comments

  1. Covermea
    Reply

    Thank you for the Supplemental Sources – Allergy Free / Vegan BCAA Supplements sources! These are hard to find.

  2. Tim
    Reply

    So what you are saying Leigh is bulking bodybuilders who eat 20+ grams a day don’t need it to get SWOLE!!?? Say it aint so?

    • Leigh Peele
      Reply

      I am sorry to be the one to break this to you tim, but someone had to do it.

  3. syra
    Reply

    I was expecting this to be hard to understand, but you explained it perfectly. Now I get that for most people it is not needed.

    • Leigh Peele
      Reply

      It was the graph wasn’t it? People always get freaked out when they see a graph.

  4. Clement
    Reply

    Hi Leigh, thanks for this post. I was really starting to wonder if BCAAs are the magic pill that people hype it up to be. And I was right – they are unnecessary. Brad Pilon and John Barban even say that if you lift heavy, engage in progressive overload and are neither powerlifter nor athlete, catabolism is not such a threat at all. I’d like to hear your opinion on this but I have a feeling you’ll agree with them!

    • Leigh Peele
      Reply

      I don’t know their (john/brad) specific statements, but I can say that catabolism is feared much more than needed by those participating in progressive overload.

  5. Natalie
    Reply

    Glad to hear I can go on more or less not paying attention to BCAAs.

    Slight digression, but any comments on flavors at trueprotein? I was just thinking of trying some of their veg proteins, but got a little stymied trying to pick out flavors. Free flavors + stevia vs. premium, premium natural, etc. Or maybe trying plain but I wasn’t sure if that would be edible or a bad idea.

  6. Jemma
    Reply

    great article, this put a lot in perspective for me. I am not a bodybuilder but I am vegan. I was under the impression you couldn’t get enough BCAA from rice or pea protein but I never supplemented because of the use of duck feather for BCAA. Can you confirm these are free of all animal sources like that?

    • Leigh Peele
      Reply

      All the companies have verified that the sources of aminos are plant based and animal free.

  7. cannew
    Reply

    thank you leigh. this is really interesting especially coming from an endurance and strength training backgroud!!!!

  8. Mary
    Reply

    When I was in my 20′s I was trained by the owner of my gym who competed. He had me taking a handful of amino acid capsules, twice a day. L-ornithine/L-Arginine, Lysine, and a couple others that I can’t remember. When I started weight lifting again in my late 30′s, I started up on the three above, then read an article that the L-Ornithine/L-Arginine combo was hard on the kidneys, (or liver, again my memory fails me). I stopped taking them.

    After reading this I think of all the cash I couldve saved, cuz they weren’t cheap. Great article…..:)

  9. Mimi (Gingersnaps)
    Reply

    You have this magical ability to always write about topics that are puttering around my head.

  10. Stacey Swinton
    Reply

    Leigh,

    For quite some time I have seen people touting Sun Warrior’s rice protein for those who may have various food allergies or sensitivities. Based upon cost effectiveness alone, True Protein’s rice protein offerings would seem to blow Sun Warrior our of the water, so I am curious if you can think of any compelling reasons why a person might still want to select Sun Warrior’s product instead of going the True Protein route.

  11. IanW
    Reply

    Leigh,
    Thanks for this helpful information. It would seem that for those of us living a normal life and maintaining an adequate diet there is little gain in talking any BCAA supplements. We can get all that we require from our diet.

  12. Christiana
    Reply

    Hey,

    Thanks for the great article! Would you say then, in your personal opinion, to avoid BCAAs while breastfeeding (a toddler)? Or do you think they’d be pretty safe since they naturally occur? I read something about them changing the amino acid content of the milk, which would I guess presumably be bad? Thanks for the help!

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