Hey there all you awesome Feel Good Followers! Before I sat down to write up today’s post I couldn’t decide whether to go with my usual style of writing or to completely nerd it out and get technical. So I think I’ll combine the two. I only say that because there are some terms that flat out need to be included for this to all make sense.
So first of all, for those who don’t know, BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids. Now before we get going on that, what is an amino acid? Well they are essentially building blocks. There are 21 of them altogether and 8 of them are what we call essesntial because our bodies do not make these particular 8 amino acids. Therefore we must obtain them through foods or supplementation. When combined in chains, these amino acids form proteins. There are thousands of combinations and each different combination plays a different role in the body. A few examples include all of the enzymes in our body, transporters, actin and myosin (these exist in muscle tissue), hemoglobin, collagen, and the support structure inside our bones. But for the discussion today, we will focus mostly on muscle, because that’s all anyone really cares about anyway right?
So what are some sources of protein in our diet? Some obvious sources are red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, and fish. These are all “complete” proteins, meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids. Other plant sources include beans, peas, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables. These particular proteins are incomplete (for the most part). So therefore, each one is missing at least one of the essential amino acids. So that means that they aren’t as good, right? Well no actually. Check this out: Let’s say you eat red beans and rice (Sir Mix a Lot anyone?). Well beans are lacking in the amino acid methionine, but rice is not. However, rice is lacking in cysteine, but red beans are not (it might be the other way around I cant remember, but you get the point). When eaten together, they act as what are known as complementary proteins, therefore supplying the body with all of the essential amino acids. Make sense? But then there is the subject of bioavailability. What this means is basically how much of the protein that you ingest will actually be absorbed properly and utilized. The egg is king here. It is actually the benchmark by which all other proteins are judged against. It has a bioavailability of 100. Meats, dairy, and fish are all also very high on this scale. On the lower end are your grain and vegetable proteins. So it’s not just a matter of how much, but also the quality. Perfect example are the Kashi cereals that say they have as much protein as an egg. Well, yeah they do, but their quality or bioavailablity is not nearly that of an egg. Therefore, an egg contains 6 grams of protein that will all be used while the Kashi cereal may have 8 grams of which only a few are actually fully absorbed and utilized. So here, the egg would be the better choice (from a protein standpoint anyways).
I get questions all the time of how much protein should one have in a day, or before or after a workout? How about the source and the timing? For the lay public it can really get confusing. Hell even I struggle with the best way to answer all those questions. For how much you should have in a day it is variable from person to person based on height, weight, goals, disease state, and activity level. Post workout is another big one that I get. For some reason folks think they need this enormous amount of protein. Others shun it altogether in lieu of carbohydrates. Both are wrong. And it’s not even the correct question really. I think what everyone wants to know is “what is the maximal amount of protein that I need to ingest to stimulate muscle protein synthesis for the longest period of time?” Now that I have an answer for. For most averaged sized folks (130-220 lbs) I recommend about 25-45 grams post workout if it was a weight training session. The 25-45 correlates to the 130-220 lb range.
So what about the source post workout? Whoa man is there a lot of research out there about it. Likely because the supplement industry is a nearly 60 billion dollar a year business. One that most comes to mind immediately is whey protein. Whey is a dairy deriviative (think that watery part of your cottage cheese). It is a rapidly digesting protein. This is important because there is what we call a “window of opportunity” following an exercise session. You see, once you finish your workout, the body is “primed” to repair and replenish. Hormones and transport proteins are basically ready to roll and repair the damage you just did to yourself. This window is pretty tight and while there is some speculation as to how long it lasts, I recommend within 30 minutes of your last rep. Although the sooner the better. This is why whey supplements are so popular. No refrigeration necessary. Just add water, shake, chug, and you’re done. However, if you are going to go home right afterwards and have a meal containing a good protein source, supplementation is not necessary.
The other forms of protein I’ll discuss today include casein and soy. Casein is also a dairy derivative. It is a much slower digesting protein than whey. Casein sticks around for 6-7 hours after ingestion, making it a great type of protein to consume prior to going to bed. This way you’ll keep circulating protein needed for protein turnover (happening constantly) in your blood while you sleep. Soy on the other hand is an intermediate protein. It’s more of a 2-3 hour protein. But in the end, the body isn’t so concerned with what protein you ingest. It’s going to eventually break them all down into individual amino acids anyways. So this is where we finally get to the BCAAs.
There are 3 BCAAs. They are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They account for about 20-25% of most dietary proteins. They are unique in that they are not metabolized the same as other amino acids. While other amino acids get broken down via proteases secreted from the pancreas and are further degraded in the liver, BCAAs have the unique characteristic of bypassing much of this. In fact, muscle is the primary site for them to be catabolized (broken down). So much like whey, these are utilized even faster. But there is more to the story! Leucine is a major focus these days because it seems to have the biggest impact on muscle protein synthesis (MPS). You can think of it this way, the longer MPS is turned on, the more your muscles can be in an enviornment conducive to growing. So keeping serum leucine levels elevated seems to be a good thing when trying to gain or maintain muscle.
Ugh, I just realized there is so much more that I want to discuss, but I simply can’t type anymore. I  need to start doing video blogs. I’m not going to give you a take home message, but rather let you draw your own conclusions on what to do. For individual questions leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at asmith@fgnutrition.com You can also follow me on Twitter at @AlecsmithRD.

Til next time…