By Jenessa Connor
For years, athletes have supplemented their diets with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) because they believed BCAAs gave them a leg up on recovery and promoted muscle growth. But recent findings have shifted the scientific community's understanding of how amino acids work together, suggesting that essential amino acids (EAAs) may be a more effective option.
The conflicting information has led to more questions than answers. For example, what's the difference between BCAAs and EAAs? Are EAAs better than BCAAs? Do EAAs build muscle?
To get to the bottom of the BCAA vs EAA quandary, we spoke with Paul Falcone, senior scientist at LADDER. Here's what he (and the research) had to say.
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Before diving into the EAA vs BCAA debate, it's important to start with a basic understanding of essential amino acids and their role in the body.
Protein is the macronutrient that's largely responsible for building and repairing the body's tissues (a process also known as protein synthesis). Molecules called amino acids form protein. Of the 20 amino acids the body utilizes, nine are “essential," meaning they must be sourced from food. (The body can manufacture the other eleven amino acids on its own from.)
When we consume protein, the digestive system breaks it down into amino acids, which are released into the bloodstream and processed by the liver before being used by the body.
Among the nine EAAs, three are BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Falcone explains that BCAAs share a similar, unique chemical structure, which is why they're grouped together. It's also why they were once believed to play similar roles in protein synthesis — an assumption that's now in question.
“It became evident in the scientific literature that certain amino acids were driving the signaling of muscle protein synthesis," Falcone explains. In other words, all the amino acids play a role in building and repairing muscle tissue, but certain ones appear to initiate and direct the process.
“At first, it seemed that those (signaling amino acids) were branched-chain amino acids," says Falcone. "But then it became clear that it was really leucine that was driving muscle protein synthesis, and that valine and isoleucine were not having as much of an effect."
While valine and isoleucine are critical to building muscle, they don't play the same signaling role as leucine.
Are EAAs Better Than BCAAs?
In many ways, “EAA vs BCAA" is a fraught comparison. While structured a little differently from other EAAs, BCAAs are EAAs. And all EAAs, including BCAAs, are essential to protein synthesis, as well as other biological functions related to normal growth and development. EAAs are only “better" than BCAAs in that they represent a more complete grouping of necessary amino acids.
When choosing between BCAA or EAA supplements, Falcone's recommendation is to opt for a well-balanced EAA supplement that meets the daily requirements for adults and contains between 700 and 3,000 milligrams of leucine. This formula will provide your body with the complete profile of EAAs that it needs to build and repair tissues.
A protein supplement like LADDER Whey Protein is also a great option as it contains EAAs as well as tart cherry, which helps reduce post-workout muscle soreness.* However, protein supplements are typically higher in calories than a BCAA supplement and many contain fiber, making them a bit heavier than EAAs. So, you (and your digestive system) may prefer to save your protein shakes for the post-workout recovery window.
According to Falcone, as well as some studies on the efficacy of supplementing with BCAAs, there's no reason to take them separately. Yes, leucine signals protein synthesis, but without the other EAAs, there's nothing to trigger.
“Essentially, it's like having the contractor, but not all the bricks," Falcone says. “You need all the bricks there for the contractor to be able to do their job."
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.