BCAAs is the abbreviation for branched-chain amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Branching refers to the molecular structure of this particular group of amino acids.
When we talk about BCAAs, we mean the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are essential. That is, they are important for muscle building and essential for survival, but they can not be synthesized by the body. You must therefore consume these amino acids through food or supplements.
Studies show that leucine, isoleucine, and valine significantly influence protein synthesis, i.e. muscle growth. Furthermore, the intake of BCAAs can protect your muscles from atrophy, contribute to better recovery, and strengthen your immune system. These positive effects of branched-chain amino acids are largely the basis of the supplement industry's advertising, which promotes BCAAs as a vital dietary supplement.
However, BCAAs are not actually the best investment when it comes to supplements that are useful for muscle building. This is because leucine, isoleucine, and valine are not the only essential amino acids. In fact, there are nine essential amino acids in total. These include histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan.
Although leucine is the amino acid that sets protein synthesis in motion in the first place, BCAAs alone are not enough for optimal muscle building.
To weigh the usefulness of BCAAs, a basic understanding of muscle protein synthesis is required. For anabolic metabolic processes, at least nine essential amino acids are needed. The higher the amino acid profile of a meal, the better its potential for building muscle. So, to effectively build muscle, you should reach for EAAs (essential amino acids) instead of BCAAs.
EAAs have a significantly better effect on muscle growth than BCAAs. However, whey protein has even better effects on protein synthesis.
A cheaper and better alternative is to simply take a complete protein powder, such as whey. However, whole protein-rich foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and legumes are also perfectly fine sources of complete proteins.
In addition, even foods which have an incomplete amino acid profile can be strategically combined together to get a complete protein with all nine amino acids. For instance, you can combine the protein you get from beans, which is short on methionine, with methionine-containing grains or nuts.
Many vegetarian and vegan protein powders use this technique, using a combination of pea, soy, and other proteins to create a complete amino acid profile.