You may have heard about branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, in a sports magazine or on a fitness nutrition website and wondered what all the hype was about. You may have even wondered what the heck a BCAA actually is and if you need it. But while BCAA powders and capsules might seem like tempting supplements to try, BCAAs are actually found in any food that contains protein, so you’re likely getting plenty in a balanced diet.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains everything you need to know about branched chain amino acids and the role they play in athlete nutrition.
1. BCAAS make up protein
BCAAs are the building blocks of protein, specifically leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which athletes need in order to build muscle and maintain muscle and blood cells. However, just because they help build muscle, it doesn’t mean that they’ll build muscle as you’re working out! “They provide energy to your muscles, but they won’t necessarily increase your performance during a training session,” Ziesmer explains. “They just provide a bit of the fuel that you’re burning in a workout.”
2. BCAAS are found in whole foods
“A lot of people hear the term branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, and assume that they can only be found in powders or capsules made by sport nutrition companies,” says Ziesmer. “But you can get BCAAs from any type of meat products, including chicken, beef, pork, fish, dairy, and eggs. There are more than 20 amino acids that make up protein, but athletes should focus primarily on leucine if they’re paying attention to the types of BCAAs they’re getting from food. The most important amino acid for developing muscle is leucine, and that’s found in large quantities in egg whites and dairy.” And yes, vegan athletes can still get BCAAs from whole foods, but it’s more complicated since vegan options typically don’t contain all the necessary amino acids. Still, vegan foods can be combined (either in a meal or in the course of a day) to provide all the vital BCAAs. Brown rice and black beans, for example, provide the key amino acids that a growing athlete needs.