Podcast #78: Are BCAAs (or EAAs) Really Necessary for Muscle Growth?
Well it's about time that I finally tackle a topic I get asked about ALL THE DAMN TIME as a vegan trainer & nutrition coach. And one that I see being discussed amidst various bodybuilding groups far too often too. So I’d like to use this blog and podcast opportunity to provide my own vegan coaching opinion on this hot topic.
And that topic is whether we should or should not be supplementing with branched chain amino acids.
Now perhaps you’re wondering what exactly are these “BCAAs” I speak of? Allow me to enlighten you.
It’s no surprise that along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is one of the most important macronutrients our bodies require in order to live. And our bodies use the proteins from the foods we eat to build and repair tissues i.e. grow muscle among many other vital processes.
BCAAs, therefore, are a group of amino acids that are considered to be the building blocks of protein. And that acronym stands for branched chain amino acids.
What this means is that our bodies basically require 20 different amino acids for them to function optimally. Thankfully our beloved bodies can actually create 11 of these amino acids (otherwise known as "non-essential amino acids"). But the other nine, we have to obtain from the food we eat (hence the term “essential” amino acids).
Now generally speaking, foods that are high in essential amino acids are considered to be a higher-quality protein. And to take it a step further, you might’ve heard that a “complete” protein is a food that contains all nine essential amino acids.
Meat eaters for instance, LOVE to share with us vegans that any animal meat (or eggs or cow’s milk) are “complete” protein sources therefore better protein options than plant foods. But chill, bruh! Plant proteins are by no means missing or completely lacking in amino acids either. They simply have more of one kind or less of another excluding the big three nutritional powerhouses: quinoa, soy, and chia seeds. These three vegan foods are considered to be “complete” proteins because they do contain all nine of those essential amino acids.
The big difference is that animal proteins do offer more protein per serving than a similar-sized serving of chia seeds, quinoa or soy. But let’s not forget that in addition to unnecessary torture, suffering and death, MANY studies have linked animal consumption to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Let’s not even get me started on THAT rant though and instead cover some of the essential amino acids that are sometimes missing from vegan foods.
There are actually only four essential amino acids that are sometimes lacking in plant foods and they are lysine, tryptophan, methionine and phenylalanine. But the good news is that by eating a variety of foods, you should still be able to get enough of these hard-to-come-by essential amino acids.
- Lysine for instance can be found in seitan, quinoa, all beans, nutritional yeast, lentils and soy.
- Tryptophan can be found in spinach, asparagus, peanuts, soy, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds.
- Methionine can be found in avocado, sunflower seeds/butter, brazil nuts and good ol’ oats.
- And finally, Phenylalanine can be found in all nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, most whole grains, soy, chickpeas and lentils.
As for BCAAs specifically, the three essential amino acids that we vegan bodybuilders are often most concerned with are leucine, isoleucine and valine. And it is this key trio that helps stimulate muscle growth and repair.
Together, these three basically form a branched-chain structure (hence the name branched chain amino acids) where they not only build muscle but decrease muscle fatigue and alleviate muscle soreness.
Valine specifically supports lean muscle mass building and repair. Leucine activates a pathway in the body that stimulates muscle protein synthesis (the process of making actual muscle.) And isoleucine helps to reduce the harmful effects of stress on your body. Because as we all know, bodybuilding IS a form of stress on the body!
ANYWHO, thankfully, soy, all kinds of beans, lentils and pumpkin seeds in particular are all excellent sources of both leucine and valine. And you can easily get enough isoleucine through soy and seaweed. Or do what most bodybuilders do (including myself) and simply include a good quality BCAA supplement into your nutrition regimen. Or an EAA supplement which I will elaborate more on later.
But first, I just really want to make it clear that I do firmly believe that for vegans, it can greatly benefit your muscle building efforts to include a BCAA or EAA supplement into your routine.
And yes, there are many vegans out there who don’t think it’s necessary to supplement with these. And I see them sharing their views all over the vegan bodybuilding facebook groups.
And yes, there are a TON of non-vegan bodybuilders and coaches who also don’t believe it’s necessary to supplement with amino acids. And hey, if you are a meat eater and you’re able to consume 130g+ of protein per day, you probably don’t need a BCAA supplement. But if you are a vegan and you want to build some muscle, I do highly suggest adding BCAAs into your supplement regimen.
And I’m even happy to share some of the best plant foods that do contain a small amount of these important muscle building amino acids.
- Valine for instance can be found in oats, soy, buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, beans/lentils, peanuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, cashews, spinach, hemp seeds, swiss chard, almonds, walnuts, quinoa and peas.
- Isoleucine is also found in oats, soy, sunflower seeds, beans/lentils, buckwheat, Swiss chard, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, sesame seeds, cashews, spinach, almonds, hemp seeds, walnuts, quinoa, peas and eggplant.
- And finally, good ol’ leucine can be found in soy, spirulina, peanuts, spinach, oats, pumpkin seeds and we can’t forget our good farty friends: beans and lentils.
But again, the vegan diet DOES tend to be lower in amino acids than a meat eater’s diet. And this is why I do believe it’s just easy and helpful for us bodybuilding vegans to add a supplement into the mix. And lately, for me, it’s been an EAA product rather than my good ol' trusty BCAAs.
EAAs mean “essential amino acid blends” which actually contain ALL nine amino acids that the body cannot produce itself including the three BCAAs.
And yes, my own vegan coaching opinion has started to shift in recent months to the belief that BCAAs are probably better suited for bodybuilders who already meet their total daily protein needs. And EAAs are probably best suited for those who typically fall short. And that goes for my vegan brethren or anyone!
OH! And I’m sure I don’t need to mention this but no matter which product you buy, make sure that you’re buying a vegan brand. Unfortunately, most non-vegan BCAAs are made from animal or human hair, duck feathers and/or animal skin. Whereas vegan sourced amino acids are usually derived from beets, sunflower seeds or corn.
I do have plenty more to add on this subject but you’ll have to tune into the podcast to hear it, folks!
In the meantime, I will conclude this post by saying once again to my fellow meatless meatheads that I highly recommend you supplement with BCAAs or EAAs if you are looking to maximize your muscle building potential. But of course, no BCAA or EAA supplement is going to do a damn thing for you UNLESS you’re consuming a plant protein-rich diet AND sticking to a consistent, heavy-ass lifting program.
Hit me up for coaching if you need some help in this department! And on that note, happy lifting and happy podcast listening, vegan fit crew!