Branched Chain Amino Acids and Exercise
I have a plan for 2013 to increase my muscle mass a bit and have started researching some of the vegan fitness sites. One suggestion is to take a branched chain amino acids (BCAA) supplement right before and after workouts. Is there research showing it to be useful? Are there any health drawbacks? Are there any known vegan brands?
There are three BCAA: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are essential amino acids (the body doesn’t synthesize them on its own), but are found prevalently in plant foods.
In their position paper, Nutrition and Athletic Performance, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) list BCAA in the category of “Ergogenic aids that do not perform as claimed.” (Ergogenic aid means something that increases the ability to exercise.)
Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2003) doesn’t even list BCAA in the index, which is rather surprising given how often I get the question about them (three times in the last few weeks).
Usually, my pat answer is to cite the ACSM position paper and be done with it. But this time I decided to look into it more than I have previously. The only review article I found that promised to be of any value was a 2009 article A Primer On Branched Chain Amino Acids (PDF), by Starkie Sowers, CN, of Huntington College of Health Sciences.
It’s an impressive read, but once you delve into the abstracts of the citations, it loses its luster. My summary of the research I found is that taking BCAA before a workout can prevent fatigue and the metabolizing of muscle protein for energy, but so will eating any old protein or carbohydrate. The one clinical trial cited in Sowers’ review (and the only one I could find) actually found no effect of BCAA above carbohydrate in preventing exercise fatigue (2).
There appears to be very little research done on BCAA since the 90s. Anyone interested in seeing a list of studies can click here for those related to the clinical trial mentioned above.
If after reading the above, anyone still wants to supplement with BCAA, I do not know if there are vegan brands. That is a job for Google. ☺
1. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:509-527. | link
2. Davis JM, Welsh RS, De Volve KL, Alderson NA. Effects of branched-chain amino acids and carbohydrate on fatigue during intermittent, high-intensity running. Int J Sports Med. 1999 Jul;20(5):309-14. | link