Of the 20 amino acids that make up the many proteins in your body, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are pretty special.
Like other amino acids, the BCAAs (which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine) play important roles in the body, like building muscle and other body tissues and reducing muscle soreness and fatigue. However, the BCAAs have one unique quality that’s made them a star in certain arenas. “Generally, amino acids go to the liver for processing, but BCAAs skip this step, making them more ideal for muscle repair,” says sports dietitian Sarah Koszyk, R.D.N., author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year. By bypassing the liver, those aminos can head straight to your muscles without delay.
Also important to note: Since your body can’t produce the BCAAs on its own, it’s up to you to get enough through food (think protein, protein, protein) or supplements.
And while most people get enough protein over the course of a day to meet their BCAA needs, some groups have higher protein needs overall and may need to up their count, says board-certified specialist in sports dietetics Kelly Jones, R.D.N. Others, meanwhile, are more likely to fall short on their minimum protein requirements.
Here are the four groups of people who may need more BCAAs.
1. Bodybuilders and Other Avid Exercisers
Thanks to their starring role in the muscle-building process, BCAAs can be especially helpful for people who are constantly breaking their muscles down—namely, bodybuilders and other avid exercisers.
Exercise creates muscle damage—and the more intense the exercise, the more damage there is. So, to maintain or add muscle, you need to repair that damage—and stat. That’s where BCAAs come in. “Since BCAAs work to stimulate muscle growth and fend off muscle damage, having a BCAA-rich recovery drink or meal can enhance recovery,” Koszyk says.
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If you’re trying to build muscle, you may want to pay special attention to getting more leucine, in particular. This BCAA has been shown to trigger muscle protein synthesis (the process of repairing muscle), especially after exercise, Jones adds.
Up your intake
An easy way to up your BCAAs when you need them most is to eat a protein-rich snack or meal within two hours of finishing up a workout. Aim to get at least 0.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, Jones recommends. (If you’re 150 pounds, that amounts to roughly 17 grams.)
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) also recommends that active folks get 0.7 to three grams of leucine per snack or meal.
Eating high-quality proteins like animal foods or soy can help you hit these numbers, but a BCAA supplement comes in handy if you want to ensure you meet the mark. In fact, many avid exercisers like to sip on a BCAA supplement during their workouts to get a jump on muscle recovery and building.
2. Women Who Are Pregnant or Nursing
It goes without saying that pregnant and nursing women are in a constant state of growth, which means they need a bit more protein (and BCAAs) than other people. “Protein affects the growth of fetal tissues and brain cells and is important for the baby’s growth and development, too,” Koszyk says. When nursing, it also helps rebuild your milk supply.
While you don’t necessarily need to stress specifically about BCAAs when pregnant or nursing, you do need to make sure you stay on top of your overall protein intake to meet your needs and encourage continual growth and development, Koszyk says. Eating a variety of protein sources should help you get the optimal balance of BCAAs and other essential amino acids.
On average, you’ll need a minimum of 60 grams of protein per day when pregnant and nursing, though it never hurts to double-check with your doctor or a registered dietitian, Koszyk says.
Up your intake
Try adding a quality protein source to your breakfast, which tends to be a low-protein meal for many people. Eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, seeds, and dairy milk are all good options, Koszyk says. Whole-food sources are especially important during pregnancy, so make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before incorporating any supplements at this time in life.
3. Vegetarians and Vegans
Meat is a great source of protein and BCAAs, which means that cutting animal products out of your diet puts you at a higher risk of deficiency, according to a review published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
“Plant-based sources typically contain lower quantities of BCAAs when compared to animal-based sources,” Koszyk says. This means you’d have to eat high amounts of these foods and get strategic about the variety you include in order to meet your needs.
Up your intake
Focus on plant-based protein sources higher in BCAAs, such as tofu, tempeh, spirulina, and beans—and when you put together your meals, try to include multiple sources. For example, try a buddha bowl that includes tofu, black beans, quinoa, vegetables, and a sprinkle of chia seeds on top, Koszyk suggests.
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That said, without a little extra care, you may struggle to get enough BCAAs through food alone. “Supplementation through a hemp, pea, or soy protein powder may be needed,” Koszyk says. You might also consider the Women’s Best BCAA Amino supplement, which provides vital BCAAs from vegan sources.
4. Older Adults
A lot of things change as we age. For one thing, we lose total protein (not just BCAAs), muscle mass, and other protein-heavy organ tissue, blood components, and immune cells, according to a review published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. That said, “BCAAs can assist with muscle growth and prevent further muscle deterioration,” Koszyk notes.
Older adults also don’t digest protein as easily as young and middle-aged adults, which is another reason why they’re typically a group of people who may need more BCAAs (and protein overall) than most. Getting more than the standard amount of BCAAs (particularly leucine) can ensure that more of these key muscle-builders make it into your system, according to a review published in The Journal of Nutrition.
To counteract the loss of muscle, older adults should aim to get roughly 25 to 30 grams of protein, along with three grams of leucine, at every major meal.
Up your intake
Try to include a protein source at every meal. Eating protein consistently throughout the day will help ensure you don’t fall short, Koszyk says. Great food sources of BCAAs include dairy milk, Greek yogurt, eggs, tuna, beans, nuts, seeds, whey protein powder, and chicken.