Protein 101: Supplements and BCAAs
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients that you’re familiar with (carbs and fat being the other two; alcohol is actually a fourth macronutrient). Protein is pretty much the most important one when it comes to building muscle mass. Even if becoming big and buff isn’t your end goal, protein plays a major role in preserving muscle mass that could be lost during weight loss and as we age.
Gym owners, personal trainers, and supplementation shops try to sell protein supplements as the most important way to get protein, but, in many of these cases, those folks are just trying to squeeze out a couple more bucks from your pockets and into theirs.
If you’re feeling like there’s a lot that you’re not clearly understanding about protein, you shouldn’t feel bad. Today, my goal is to answer some of the questions you might have about protein, so you could make better decisions about eating and supplementation. Let’s get started!
The number one rule you should always follow whenever it comes to supplements is to be very careful, very skeptical, and ask a lot of questions to nutrition experts like myself, registered dietitians, and your doctor — and most definitely not some muscled up gym bro or the salesman at your gym/supplement shop. Remember, supplements aren’t required to be reviewed by the FDA, which means any company can pump out their own products to the market without scrutiny until something seriously bad happens, and you never know if you might be the person getting injured by bad supplements. Several studies have exposed manufacturers failing to include some of the active ingredients listed on the label, as well as some companies including illegal ingredients that have cost athletes their careers.
How can you be sure that the protein supplement you choose is a high-quality product? Do your research. The highest quality supplement manufacturers are those that voluntarily submit their products to independent quality testers, which, in many cases, have even more stringent standards than that of the FDA when it comes to testing pharmaceutical drugs! When a supplement carries the USP- or NSF-certified logo on the label, it’s a good indication that you’re carrying a high quality product.
Before you even take a protein supplement, you should take a close look at your regular eating habits because, in some cases, people are already getting enough protein, so there is no need for supplementation. Using a food diary app, such as MyFitnessPal and FatSecret, can make it easy for you to get a good estimate of your daily protein intake. For best results, while using these apps, measure the foods with a small kitchen scale and measuring cups to reduce the likelihood of over- or underestimating your intake.
Amino acids, when put together, are what forms protein. For human protein, it’s nine essential amino acids and 11 nonessential amino acids. Basically, the difference between essential and nonessential amino acid is that you have to acquire essential amino acids from food or supplementation, meanwhile your body can make nonessential amino acids by itself.
Think of amino acids as LEGO blocks and protein as a car that you want to build. “Perfect protein” is a high quality protein that nearly mirrors human protein, such as egg whites, in which there is no excess nor shortage of amino acids when completing the protein. Just because you have one of each does not mean you’re going to complete the protein. Going back to the LEGO scenario, you also want to be sure that you have the right QUANTITY of each piece. If you’re short on the quantity for one LEGO piece, then your car is going to look odd; this is the equivalent of low-quality protein.
Moreover, missing just one essential amino acid means that your body is incapable of completing the protein, so until you finally acquire the missing amino acids, you can’t use the protein. It’s like building a fortified house in a rough neighborhood, then forgetting to install a front door. Now if you have all of the amino acids, but not the right quantity, it’s like that little pig that built his house out of hay (low quality).
BCAAs and How Much Protein is Needed
BCAA (branched-chain amino acids) supplements are comprised of three essential amino acids — valine, leucine, and isoleucine — which are widely associated with muscle hypertrophy (aka muscle size growth). Does this mean that taking these supplement will get your muscles exploding in size? Not necessarily. Remember, not only do you need to acquire all 9 essential amino acids from consumption, but you also need the right quantity.
Having an excess of certain amino acids means nothing if you’ve got a shortage of others. It reminds me of building a house out of LEGOs; I’d almost always have to find creative solutions to complete the house when I was missing the blocks I needed, which often led to gaps in my finished product. But, unlike the LEGOs where a little creativity can fill those gaps, the body cannot do the same with the excess BCAAs to fill the gaps.
According to Schoenfeld & Aragon (2018), consuming 1.6-2.2 g/kg of protein is the most effective range for growing muscle mass. This is quite a bit more than the official US government suggestion of 0.8 g/kg, but this is meant to be broadly generalized for 97% of the US population and not just those that seek to gain muscle mass. If you’re consuming 1.6-2.2 g/kg, then you’re more than likely getting all of the the three BCAAs that you need, especially if eggs and other animal products are consumed. For those on highly restrictive diets, though, then it would make more sense for these folks to supplement with BCAAs, but they might also be short on other amino acids, as well.
All in all, do you really need to take BCAA supplements? It depends on your diet because that’s what is dictating the quantity of your essential amino acid consumption. Varying your protein sources can help close potential gaps, which is what I highly recommend over relying upon supplements. In fact, even some whey protein powders, namely the lower quality ones, may be skimping on the whey by using low cost fillers so the manufacturers can make more profit. In this case, the powders may have all the essential amino acids to make the protein, but the quality is so low that your body may only be able to use a fraction of that protein to build and repair muscle.
Things can appear complicated when it comes to protein; even I have a bunch of questions, and I’m the one with a Master’s in Nutrition! That said, overwhelming yourself by obsessing over the minutia isn’t going to help you much, nor will it serve a large benefits in the long run. Ultimately, you want to make sure that you’re consuming enough protein to build or maintain your muscle mass, and also that the majority is a high quality protein source. By adding variety to your protein sources, and not just relying on supplementation, you’ll end up with a much higher chance of successfully reaching your goals.