Protein Powder and BCAAs

Protein powders and drinks are becoming more and more popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. We use them to help repair muscles after a workout, as a meal replacement to cut calories, they are so convenient, and to GET SWOLE, MAN. Not to mention, if you find the right protein supplement for you, the shakes can taste amazing.

Most protein powders are made from milk proteins, which makes them NOT PALEO. However, most of the “bad stuff” in dairy is removed and all that is left is dry whey or casein. If you’re not allergic, go for it. However, if you are trying a Whole30, I recommend avoiding all protein powders, even those considered paleo as it is technially a processed food. This is the protein powder that I use since it is gluten-free and is the best tasting delicious protein magic ever. If you don’t like the taste of your selected protein, you will not look forward to it, and eventually stop using it. Trust me, my apartment is full of half empty tubs of nasty-tasting protein.


I either use this as a supplement right after a workout, or, more often, blend it with almond milk and a banana for breakfast as an on-the-go meal replacement.

There is a small amount of evidence suggesting that low-glycemic meals like protein shakes can aid in weight loss, but the evidence is not complete as this is an observational study (1). There have not been sufficient studies to fully demonstrate that protein shakes after a workout help to quickly heal the micro-tears in the muscles (micro-tears are small tears in the muscle from a strenuous workout), but the entire sport of body building seems to believe that it really helps.

I can’t say personally that I’ve noticed a recovery difference since consuming proteins shakes. However, something that really does aid in my personal workout recovery is BCAA supplements. BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) are certainly present in protein powder. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are approximately 500 amino acids that have been defined, but only 22 of them are considered standard, and only 20 are naturally occurring in consumable protein.  All amino acids have side chain groups. Branched-chain amino acids are exactly as the name suggests. They have side chains with branches in them. BCAAs include leucine, isoleucine, and valine (2). In the following picture, the green represents the side chain of the amino acids. The branch is where you see one green carbon attached to three other carbons. In other amino acids, the green carbons would only be attached to two other carbons. Hence, the branch.

BCAA orgo

BCAAs are considered essential amino acids because the human body cannot make them itself (3).  Because BCAAs can be easily converted into toxic products, the body will use what it needs and dispose of the rest quickly. Obviously, we don’t want toxins building up inside of us, but this means the body will not store BCAAs. They need to be consumed regularly. It is entirely possible for the body to extract BCAAs from regular food proteins, but they are more available in protein powders, and even more available in capsule supplements. The difference between other amino acids and BCAAs is that BCAAs are oxidized in the skeletal muscle and promote near instant healing, while other amino acids are metabolized in the liver (4). Some evidence also suggests that BCAAs not only promote healing but contribute to additional energy sources during exercise (4).  Leucine especially, promotes protein-muscle synthesis (5). BCAA supplementation may be beneficial before and after a workout. Evidence shows that consumption before a workout can prevent muscle damage and increase energy, while supplementation after a workout healed muscle damage and reduced muscle soreness (6-8).

That is the reason I supplement with BCAA capsules. I don’t want soreness deterring me from working out again the next day. According to the research, BCAAs have basically been proven to work in humans. Some of the studies were observational, but others were hard science. I don’t think that protein shakes will be as beneficial to muscle healing after a workout, but I do think they are a great low-glycemic meal replacement. I would imagine that all protein powders have added BCAAs to their formulas, but the research suggests that a capsule is a more effective dosing strategy. I could be totally wrong about the benefits of protein shakes, but there isn’t a lot of science to support their necessity. There is science to support a regimen of BCAA supplementation if you are very physically active, and I have noticed the decreased soreness myself.

1. Balliett MRasmussen OBurke JR.  Effects of tea combined with high-protein meal replacement shakes on anthropometric measurements, lipid profiles, cellular biochemistry, neurochemistry, and microbial metabolism: a prospective observational study. J Chiropr Med. 2011 Dec;10(4):272-82.

2. Sowers, Strakie. “A Primer On Branched Chain Amino Acids”. Huntington College of Health Sciences. Retrieved 22 March 2011.

3. “Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise”J. Nutr. 134 (6): 1583S–1587S. 2004. Retrieved 22 March 2011.

4. Rennie, M. J. (1996) Influence of exercise on protein and amino acid metabolism. In: Handbook of Physiology, Sect. 12: Exercise: Regulation and Integration of Multiple Systems (Rowell, L. B. & Shepherd, J. T., eds.), chapter 22, pp. 995–1035. American Physiological Society, Bethesda, MD

5. Kimball, S. R., Farrell, P. A. & Jefferson, L. S. (2002) Exercise effects on insulin signaling and action. Invited Review: role of insulin in translational control of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by amino acids or exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. 93: 1168–1180

6. MacLean, D. A., Graham, T. E. & Saltin, B. (1994) Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise. Am. J. Physiol. 267: E1010–E1022.

7. Coombes, J. S. & McNaughton, L. R. (2000) Effects of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on serum creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase after prolonged exercise. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 40: 240–246

8. Nosaka, K. (2003) Muscle soreness and amino acids. Training J. 289:24–28.


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