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Branched-Chain Amino Acid Benefits: Everything You Should Know

The Fynd

Fresh content for optimists.

Branched-Chain Amino Acid Benefits: Everything You Should Know

by Devineé, Move to Root

If you’ve ever scrolled through a fitness influencer’s Instagram or TikTok, chances are you’ve heard the term BCAAs.” Or maybe you overheard someone at the gym refer to BCAAs as something like the ultimate muscle-building triad,” and now you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of these tiny but mighty essential nutrients. As three of the essential building blocks of muscle, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are popular among athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness junkies alike. But are they all they’re jacked up” to be? And what foods provide optimal levels of all three amino acids? We dive into the answers to common BCAA-related questions and break down the research behind the benefits of BCAAs below. 

What are BCAAs?

Although amino acids link together in chains to form specific proteins, the chain” in branched-chain amino acid actually refers to something entirely different. To understand what a BCAA is, let’s first review the structure of an amino acid, shall we?

Amino acids are made up of three vital components: an amino group (-NH2), a carboxyl group (-COOH), and a side chain (-R group).1 It’s the side chain that makes each amino acid unique!

Therefore, the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine are categorized as BCAAs because they all have side chains that look branched in structure (cue the light bulb moment). But, aside from their side chains, what sets BCAAs apart from other amino acids or proteins, in general? We are so glad you asked. Keep reading to find out. 

BCAAs vs. Amino Acids vs. Protein

In total, there are 20 amino acids that bind together to form thousands of proteins in the human body. Nine of these amino acids are considered essential, meaning the body cannot produce them, and they must be obtained from a well-balanced diet. The BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine are three of these nine essential amino acids. 

The majority of amino acids are metabolized, or broken down, in the liver. However, what sets BCAAs apart from the other amino acids is that they’re primarily metabolized and used as energy sources in muscle tissue.3 In fact, BCAAs account for 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle.4 This noteworthy stat is what makes BCAAs appealing to iron pumpers. However, there is a misconception that BCAAs alone enhance muscle-building capacity. The truth is, muscle protein is in a continuous state of turnover, which means the process of building muscle occurs continuously to replace the protein lost due to protein breakdown.2 Therefore, all nine essential amino acids must be consumed in sufficient amounts to make new muscle protein and to avoid the breakdown of muscle tissue.2 In other words, it’s best to obtain BCAAs from whole foods that supply all nine essential amino acids rather than taking BCAA supplements in isolation (more on BCAA foods below). Nonetheless, BCAAs, especially leucine, are valuable because they play a pivotal role in activating and stimulating muscle protein synthesis—the process of how proteins are built to create new muscle (among other things).3 Let’s unpack this a bit further.

What are the Benefits of BCAAs?

May Promote Muscle Growth

One of the most sought-after benefits of BCAA consumption is the promotion of muscle growth and development. Not only are BCAAs the building blocks required for muscle growth, but they also elicit a stimulatory effect that activates the entire muscle protein synthesis process.5 Simply put, protein synthesis is the process of assembling amino acids together to make protein. Therefore, muscle protein synthesis is the process of incorporating amino acids into skeletal muscle proteins to facilitate muscle growth. Of the three BCAAs, leucine is the primary amino acid responsible for initiating muscle growth.6 Specifically, leucine has been shown to activate a pathway called the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway, which is important for kick-starting protein synthesis and, subsequently, muscle cell growth.6 So, you can think of leucine as the key that unlocks the door to muscle growth. However, research has found that, in order to actually build and increase muscle mass, all nine essential amino acids must be consumed in adequate amounts—not just BCAAs on their own.2

May Provide Energy to Muscles 

As previously mentioned, BCAAs are unique in that they are metabolized in muscle tissue. Following a BCAA-rich meal, leucine, isoleucine, and valine bypass liver metabolism and go directly into the systemic circulation, where they can be taken up and utilized by skeletal muscle.6 Therefore, they can act as a readily available energy source for muscle tissue.3 This is especially beneficial during prolonged exercise because muscles need a consistent supply of energy to function properly. 

May Aid in Muscle Recovery

Exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is an inevitable result of strenuous exercise. EIMD is characterized by impaired muscle function, muscle soreness, stiffness, inflammation, and swelling that may last for several days.7 The inflammation that arises after a workout can be identified by the release of inflammatory markers such as creatine kinase (CK).7 BCAAs have been examined for their ability to reduce the effects of EIMD and speed up muscle recovery. Research indicates that BCAAs can decrease muscle damage, reduce the release of CK, eliminate muscle soreness, and accelerate muscle recovery following resistance exercise.7,8

May Prevent Muscle Loss

Preventing muscle loss is not only applicable for those looking to make gains, but it is also imperative for older individuals. Gradual muscle loss is referred to as sarcopenia and is common as we age. In order to prevent excess muscle breakdown, it is vital to consume the essential amino acids—including BCAAs—daily.2 According to a study conducted on individuals with pre-sarcopenia or sarcopenia, consuming BCAAs for five weeks improved physical performance, muscle strength, and muscle mass in older adults.9

May Help with Weight Loss

Beyond protein synthesis and muscle growth, the BCAA leucine has also been shown to regulate fat metabolism.10 More specifically, leucine can help promote the movement of fat into the skeletal muscle to be broken down and used as an energy source for protein synthesis. This means that leucine intake can reduce the storage of fat cells and enhance body fat loss.10 In combination with resistance exercise, a study supporting leucine’s effect on weight loss revealed that BCAA intake significantly decreased body fat percentage among strength-trained males.11

Which Foods are High in BCAAs?

BCAAs can be found in a wide variety of food sources, as well as in the form of supplement powders or pills. Here are the top BCAA protein sources from food:

Plant BCAA Sources



Total BCAA amount


1 cup

5.2 g


1 cup

3.0 g

Mung Beans14

1 cup

2.4 g

Hemp Seeds15

3 tbsp

1.6 g

Pumpkin Seeds16

3 tbsp

1.5 g


1 cup


Animal BCAA Sources



Total BCAA amount

Chicken, breast18

3.5 oz

5.5 g

Beef, roast19

3 oz

4.2 g


3.5 oz

4.0 g

Greek Yogurt21

1 container

3.5 oz

Milk, 2%22

1 cup

1.9 g


1 large

1.3 grams

It is often assumed that animals and plants are the only viable sources of BCAAs. However, various forms of fungi can also be rich in BCAAs. Take the fungi-based protein Fy™, for example. It’s an excellent source of all three BCAAs—boasting an impressive 25% composition of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

How Much BCAA Should Be Consumed Daily?

Now that you are aware of the prominent BCAA foods, you may wonder how much BCAA you should consume per day. And is it possible to consume too much BCAA from foods? For the general population, the answer to that question is no.”

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for BCAAs is based on every 2.2 pounds (lbs) or 1 kilogram (kg) of body weight. Therefore, it’s easiest to consider your intake of BCAAs in terms of milligrams (mg) per kg of body weight. On average, a healthy adult should consume approximately 85 mg/​kg of combined BCAAs daily.24 This translates to 39 mg/​kg of leucine, 20 mg/​kg of isoleucine, and 26 mg/​kg of valine.24,25 To put this in perspective, an individual weighing 170 pounds or 77 kg should consume 6,545 mg (6.5 g) of combined BCAA daily. As you can see from the tables above, it is possible to reach this amount with food sources alone.

It’s worth noting that for those with maple syrup urine disease (MUSD), BCAA consumption should be restricted. Individuals with MUSD lack the enzyme required to break down BCAAs properly.25 As a result, encephalopathy and death may occur.25 Therefore, it is imperative to be cautious of excess BCAA consumption for this specific population. 

The Bottom Line

When consumed in adequate amounts from whole-food sources, BCAAs are exceptional nutrients that may provide energy to muscle tissue, enhance muscle growth, aid in muscle recovery, prevent muscle loss, and reduce fat storage. Whether you wish to increase your gains, maintain muscle mass, or lose weight, there are a plethora of animal‑, plant‑, and fungi-based BCAA-rich foods that are likely to help you reach your goals. 

Interested in continuing the protein conversation? Check out this blog, which covers everything you need to know about the differences between complete and incomplete proteins.


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