EAA vs. BCAA is the WRONG discussion!
As you might have guessed from the article name, we have been discussing the wrong topic! When EAAs hit store shelves, I was convinced that they would put an end to the raging popularity and use of BCAAs. Obviously, I was wrong! Why? I made the mistake of not considering the specific benefits for each and that there really were benefits to both, given unique scenarios. The goal today in this ‘quick-read’ is to provide an overview of how to get the most out of an EAA or BCAA and allow you to determine which is best in your situation.
Before digging into this, we need to quickly recap some basics!
Knowledge & Terminology Refresher:
- Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) and Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are both Amino Acids.
- EAAs include all 3 BCAAs.
- Anabolic state occurs when the amount of protein available in the body exceeds the amount being used for basic daily functioning. This occurrence triggers muscle growth. When the opposite happens, this is called a Catabolic state.
- Muscle protein synthesis is a term used to describe a state where protein is produced & utilized for intense exercise recovery and adaptation. Theoretically, if all nutritional requirements are met it leads to muscle growth and improved future performance. Simply put, it is the process of building muscle.
- EAAs & BCAAs are most efficiently/effectively used during (intra) and after (post) exercise. Our muscles are especially receptive to amino acids for up to 48 hours after exercise.
Recent Research Findings:
- All EAAs are needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis10
- EAA supplementation may stimulate lean muscle growth just as effectively supplementing with a whole protein source1
- EAA supplementation has proven to be effective in older adults in gaining muscle mass7
- BCAA supplementation after a workout can lead to greater muscle protein synthesis6
- BCAAs can reduce DOMS10 (muscle soreness)
- BCAAs are effective for inhibiting muscle protein breakdown
We can all agree that ideally everyone would be getting their full EAA and BCAA requirements from whole foods. That said, we can also all recognize that anyone who exercises regularly will have some difficulty doing so. It is challenging to consume enough protein from whole foods to both capitalize on and stay in an anabolic state. The universal recommendation is a minimum of 1.5-2 grams of protein/kg of body weight and meeting or exceeding this requirement is a real struggle for active individuals. Supplementation of amino acids is essentially an athlete’s insurance policy for lean muscle growth and maintenance. Before deciding which product, EAA or BCAA is most appropriate, the most significant factor is analyzing your personal diet and training regimen. The choice to use supplementation is very individualized so you really cannot rely on what your ‘gym-bro/gym-sis’ is taking but rather gather information and decide where you are at and what would work best for you, at this moment.
WHEN for EAAs
As referenced above, studies exist to support the muscle building effects of EAAs, especially in older adults and those with protein deficiencies. A great question to ask is ‘who is protein deficient’? Again, this is an individualized question in most situations. If you are active and trying to put on lean muscle, then your diet alone may never provide a surplus of protein to take you to the ‘gainsville’. Whether you are a hard-gainer or looking for a few extra pounds of muscle, it would make sense to use an EAA supplement to ensure all of the nutritional boxes are checked. If you practice one of the popular trends in dieting (ex. Intermittent Fasting, Keto, Vegan, Paleo, WW, Mediterranean, Liver), then you may well benefit from a daily dose of EAAs for lean muscle growth and protein supplementation.
WHEN for BCAAs
BCAA’s would be most suited for individuals who are attempting to maintain weight and preserve muscle. While the three BCAA’s are included in the EAA’s, BCAA’s alone have not been proven to assist in building lean muscle. However, there are studies that are referenced above that support the claim that BCAAs are effective for hydration and when active individuals are looking to maintain muscle.
An ideal situation is when weight-lifters, wrestlers, boxers and MMA athletes are attempting to stay at a certain weight or cutting weight for a competition. BCAA’s will not trigger any sort of lean muscle gain like an EAA may. BCAAs will help maintain and fuel the existing lean muscle mass.
BCAA’s provide up to 18% of the energy when training and, unlike other aminos, are mostly consumed in the muscle, not the liver. They can be muscle sparing by providing energy rather than getting it from the breakdown of muscle mass. When a BCAA is combined with electrolytes it can be highly beneficial for muscle firing, energy output and activating the MTOR pathway for anabolic signaling (mTOR is short for mammalian target of rapamycin, it is a protein that regulates the construction and rejuvenation of lean muscle tissue). It should also be noted that there are studies that show EAA’s (which include Leucine) also activate the mTOR pathway.
BCAA just cannot build lean muscle on their own without the other 6 EAAs present. If your diet is in check (and you are consuming enough protein) then a BCAA might be exactly what you need to get you to that next level of performance and lean muscle growth.
The chart below may serve as a helpful reference guide and summary of the information covered:
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