Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and play a vital role in many bodily functions including metabolism, muscle building and hormone regulation. For decades, they have been viewed as a critical component in bodybuilding programs. More recently, certain amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine have been touted as potential allies in the personal war against unwanted, unhealthy weight. But is that the case? We'll have a look at the scientific evidence and get you all the important answers.
What are Amino Acids
Amino acids are organic compounds that are the building blocks of protein. Think of them as tiny LEGO pieces that come together to create the amazing structures in your body. They are essential to the body’s growth, repair, and immunity. Amino acids are vital for the synthesis of enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and, of course, proteins themselves.
Non-essential amino acid
Our body can produce some amino acids on its own – referred to as non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acid
Essential amino acids on the other hand must be obtained through our diet. There are 20 known essential amino acids.
We’ll focus on the essential amino acids most regularly associated with weight loss – a family known as the three branched-chain amino acids and that comprises leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs are found in various protein-rich foods such as:
They are popular in fitness circles for their potential role in muscle protein synthesis and muscle recovery. Weight loss is mostly a new frontier. Let’s see if the science checks out.
Studies on BCAA and Weight Loss
This enormous study was a multi-country and multi-ethnic project involving 4,429 middle-aged non-diabetic individuals spanning four countries – China, Japan, the UK and US.
Participants were subjected to dietary interviews four times over a three-week period – twice at the start and twice at the end. This was complemented by tests on urine specimens to measure nutrient content. It found that a higher intake of dietary BCAA was associated with a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight status among healthy middle-aged adults.
While the scale of this investigation is unrivaled among BCAA-weight loss studies, I consider the methodology as lacking in depth to form a conclusion we can bank on.
Prevention of Muscle Loss
While the case for BCAAs impact on weight loss is modest at best, what we can see from current research is that BCAA can mitigate muscle loss during weight reduction. This comes up even in studies whose primary conclusion is that BCAA does not influence weight loss.
Like this 2018 clinical trial published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. For four weeks, 42 obese and overweight women on a caloric deficit diet received either a placebo or a combination of 6,000 mg BCAA and 40 mg vitamin B6 every day. The study found no differences in weight loss between the two groups. However, the BCAA-vitamin B6 group experienced a decline in waistline as well as a greater preservation of lean leg muscle.
There were no differences in the reduction of body weight, fat mass and waist circumference between the three groups. The BCAA group had lower muscle loss than the SDP group but greater muscle loss than the HDP group. Muscle volume increased in the BCAA group more than the other two groups.
I contend that while there is some evidence BCAA impacts weight reduction directly, it is in the prevention of muscle loss during a weight loss plan that would appear to be its most significant contribution.
When taken in appropriate doses from natural food sources, BCAAs are generally considered safe for most individuals. However, excessive supplementation may lead to nausea, bloating, gastrointestinal distress and an increased risk of insulin resistance.
The optimal dosage of BCAAs for weight loss is still up for debate. That’s partly because BCAAs are not a monolith – there is leucine, isoleucine, and valine. However, we could estimate from studies that about 6,000 mg per day in total is beneficial for weight loss. This is corroborated by recommendations on daily quantities of BCAAs in a good diet.
Amino acids and especially BCAAs are a promising new area of research for weight loss. While there are important studies suggesting BCAAs play a direct role in boosting weight loss, the evidence mostly shows that their greatest strength lies in preserving lean muscle mass during weight loss programs.
Weight loss is a complex process influenced by various factors. If you're considering using BCAAs for weight loss, prioritize a well-rounded, consistent, sustainable and personalized approach. Always listen to your body. There is no magic pill. Consult with a healthcare professional to ensure BCAA supplementation aligns with your individual needs and goals.