Do You Really Need to Take BCAAs?

If you’ve spent any time inside a gym or stepped into your local nutrition shop, you have likely been bombarded with supplement suggestions. Many of them make claims to improve your performance and help you reach your goals faster. This can include muscle growth, increased focus and sleep, or even burning extra fat throughout the day.

But which of these supplements actually works, and what do you really need? Assuming that you aren’t working toward a very intense goal (such as a bodybuilding competition), your needs are fairly basic. If you have goals to lose fat, build lean muscle mass, or support your immune system, though, there are supplements that would be beneficial to have on your shelf.

So, where do you start? Well, let’s begin with the foundation.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of our bodies. They link together to form the proteins necessary to build cells, muscles, and other tissues. Amino acids also play a large role in biosynthesis and even neurotransmission. Your body would cease to function without the intake and creation of amino acids.

There are 20 naturally-occurring amino acids total, but nine of these are referred to as essential amino acids. These nine are a bit unique because your body cannot actually create them on its own within the body – they must be ingested through a varied diet. Of these nine, three are produced synthetically in a supplement called BCAAs.

BCAAs

One of the more popular supplements among athletes, BCAAs can be found on every nutrition shop shelf. The acronym stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids, and contains three of the nine essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own:  leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Why do you need to supplement these amino acids if we get them from food? Well, there’s a number of reasons.

  • If you are training regularly, you are utilizing your amino acids stores at a higher rate than the average person. In order to support cell production, muscle formation and repair, and even basic metabolic functions, your body will be using its amino acid supply more readily than if you were just sitting on the couch all day. Supplementing these amino acids will help your body maintain its cellular function and repair muscle tissues quickly and easily. And without running low on resources.
  • Many athletes, especially those in “cutting” (lean down) phases, have more limited diets than average. Sure, they are likely taking in high amounts of protein. But they may not be taking in the types of foods needed to meet demands for essential amino acids. The three amino acids that comprise BCAAs are most readily found in egg and dairy products – many athletes cut out dairy products due to fat content or because they can cause bloating in those who are even slightly lactose-sensitive. Therefore, you may not even be getting enough of these amino acids to begin with.
  • Training regularly, working out hard, and pushing your body to new limits can be exhausting. It takes serious effort for your body to run the metabolic processes required for proper recovery. These include repairing torn muscle fibers, building new muscle tissue, burning fat, allocating energy sources, and replenishing lost tissue hydration. Your body works hard, and all of these tasks involve, you guessed it, amino acids. Think of BCAAs as lending your body a helping hand, rather than forcing it to struggle to keep up.

So, How Do You Choose a BCAA Brand?

There are hundreds of brands of BCAAs out there, all promising to do the same thing. While the actual amino acids themselves are essentially the same from a chemical compound standpoint, that doesn’t mean that each bottle of BCAAs will do the same for your body.

How Much Amino Acid Is Inside?

Of the three amino acids contained, leucine is the most important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. As such, you should pick a BCAA that has a higher quantity of leucine than isoleucine or valine.

But be careful! Some companies will run with this and advertise unnecessarily high ratios of leucine compared to the other two, some as ridiculous as 10:1:1. This actually can have a negative effect, as the three work synergistically. Sure, adequate quantities of each need to be present in order for it to have the desired effect. But if one is present in too high of quantities, it can actually end up depleting the other two. Of course, this is the opposite of what you want.

The golden standard is thought to be a ratio of 2:1:1. This is actually the same ratio for these three components that is found in your muscle tissues naturally.

What Else Is In There?

Companies know that if it tastes and smells delicious, it will probably earn repeat customers. This is probably true from a marketing standpoint. But you shouldn’t always go with the one that is the yummiest or looks the coolest in your shaker bottle.

Many of the BCAA brands out there contain a number of unnecessary additives. These can include large (unnecessary) doses of dyes, toxic chemical sweeteners, preservatives, and other supplement “boosters” that are more for marketing purposes than true effect. Many of these additives can cause gastrointestinal issues (even if they’re as mild as bloating, it’s still unnecessary), skin issues, or can even affect blood sugar levels, leading to increased fatigue or hunger.

Plus, you’re paying for those additives! Pure amino acid compounds can be pricey, so these fillers save the company money. Meanwhile, you get less of what you actually need.

While it may be impossible to escape all additives, try to find a brand that is as clean as possible. I’ve used Warrior Fuel’s BCAAs for a long time now, as they don’t add any preservatives or artificial colors/dyes. They also add extra hydrating ingredients such as coconut water powder and recovery boosters such as taurine. (Which I’ve had to buy separately in the past.)

Plus the flavors are incredible — get the tiger’s blood. You’ll thank me later. *Use code Steph15 to save*

How Much Should I Be Taking?

The jury is still out on this one, but that’s also because it can vary greatly depending on your dietary intake, training intensity, and metabolic function. Standard advice though, is that you should take anywhere from 5-10 grams of BCAAs surrounding your workout.

Many athletes choose to mix up their supplements mid-workout, sipping them as they continue and finishing the dose as they end their training. This allows your body to begin utilizing the amino acids to repair muscle fiber micro-tears that occurred at the beginning of your workout, transport oxygen to your body while it’s still being trained, and support the metabolic functions that have begun as your workout continues. Finishing the dose near the end of the workout allows your body to begin the repair and recovery process.

Amino acids are a vital building block to every single one of your body’s processes. Some of them can be synthesized by your body, but others – the essential nine —  need to be introduced through diet and supplementation.

BCAAs aren’t a miracle supplement, and they won’t do the work for you. However, combined with adequate training, sufficient water ingestion, a varied diet, and rest, they will give you a boost toward meeting your goals. Whether you want to burn fat, build lean muscle, or even just support your immune system during intense training regimens, BCAAs are a great place to start.

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Addicted: How I’m Kicking My Sugar Habit

Can I confess something to you guys?

I have a problem with self control. A big problem. Well, actually, let’s narrow that down a bit: I am addicted to sugar.

Sure, there are bigger confessions out there. This is one that I have trouble admitting to myself, though, let alone to a bunch of folks on the internet. But as someone with a fitness-based social media presence, who writes a blog centered around “balance,” I feel it’s my obligation to be honest about this.

Sweets have always been my kryptonite. No matter how much I try, practice, learn, or preach about it, I haven’t been able to conquer this problem. Becoming natural-minded has helped (it’s hard to justify a king size Snickers — or three — to yourself when you vehemently detest high fructose corn syrup, and won’t let your kids even touch it). So has starting an IIFYM lifestyle, where I track my macros each day. But even after years of trying to kick the habit, I still fall off the wagon way too often.

For those of you unfamiliar with IIFYM, it stands for If It Fits Your Macros. This is a practice of tracking your food each day, and trying to stay within set goals for both macronutrients (fat, protein, carb) and micronutrients (such as fiber or sugar).

It’s An Addiction

They say that sugar affects the brain the same as cocaine. And you know what? I believe it. I wouldn’t know from experience, as I’ve never gotten into drugs (they always terrified me), but I can imagine that the cravings I have are similar to those induced by recreational drugs.

Here’s a PET scan of a brain on cocaine, compared with one on a high dose of glucose (sugar). Notice a big difference? Yeah, me neither.

Large amounts of sugar fire off the same dopamine receptors as cocaine, giving the snacker a similar high. Unfortunately, over time, these dopamine levels are reduced, so it requires more and more sugar to reach the same level of pleasure and even ward off periods of depression. Similar, of course, to drug addicts – you need more and more of your “drug” to get the same high that was so easy to get in the beginning.

In fact, there is an alarming amount of scientific research to back up this sugar/drug comparison. For example, a study conducted at Connecticut University exposed lab rats to cocaine and morphine, two highly addictive chemicals. When later given the option between Oreos and the drugs they were already familiar with (and drawn to), the furry creatures were split down the middle. Half of the drug-addicted rats were perfectly content making the switch to chocolatey, cream-filled cookies, no longer needing chemicals to get high.

Does it alarm you that these furry creatures were able to get their fix from Oreos just as readily they could from liquid cocaine? It should. It should actually terrify you.

Additionally, the rats were later given a test to measure the expression of the protein “c-Fos.” This protein is a known marker that is released when a particular area of the brain – the one that controls the feeling of pleasure — is stimulated. Wanna guess what they found? The Oreos beat out both drugs by a long shot. As far as your brain is concerned, America’s favorite cookie is more pleasurable than coke.

Add to this the fact that high sugar diets and sugar addictions lead, quite directly, to high cholesterol and diabetes. Yet another study from the CDC found that, by 2050, anywhere from 21-33% of Americans will have diabetes.

So, How Much is Too Much?

Unless you already track your macros, the idea of keeping a tally of how much sugar you eat in a day is probably a strange idea. Even if you just try to stay cognizant of your sweets intake, it’s highly unlikely that you even realize how much you’re eating.

Sugar is in everything. Absolutely everything. Do you buy pasta sauce? Sugar is often one of the top 5 ingredients. Eat your lunchtime tuna sandwich on seemingly-healthy bread? Even the most expensive, seeded, organic, whole wheat breads are often loaded with sugar. Applesauce – made from a naturally sweet fruit – is typically full of sugar, without need. It’s everywhere.

Some sugars are more detrimental that others. White, refined, process sugar is obviously worse for your body than the sugars found in blueberries. Why, though? Well, it has a lot to do with the fact that natural sugars are typically accompanied by phenols and fiber. When you eat an apple, you’re not just consuming a bunch of sugar; you’re also getting a dose of various phenols that have antioxidant properties within the body.

The fiber found in the fruit and skin also aid in digestion and blood sugar regulation. So, you’re actually combating your subsequent blood sugar spike by eating fibrous fruits versus added-sugar foods. And, by doing so, you’re actually offsetting your risk of developing diabetes, even though you’re consuming fructose (natural sugar).

In fact, yet another study, conducted by the University of London, found that high-fiber diets (30+ grams per 1,000 kcal consumed) can even help prevent Type 2 diabetes, oxidative stress, heart disease, and strokes, among others.

Of course, even fruit should be eaten in moderation, but it is infinitely better for curbing that sweet tooth than added sugars. I personally try to keep my total amount of tracked sugar below 35 grams a day (around 50g for men). This is very difficult, and I don’t often meet my goal… but shooting for that low number means I can significantly reduce my intake each day.

As long as I stay between 35-50 grams, I’m generally pretty happy (and avoid the negative side effects like fatigue, bloating, and irritability).

How to Kick the Habit

I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I haven’t yet conquered by sugar demon. I have, however, found a number of things that have helped me get better about it and will, eventually, allow me to beat my sugar addiction once and for all.

First and foremost, I would recommend that you educate yourself. As the saying goes, “Know thy enemy.” That’s the only way you will know what you’re fighting, why you’re fighting it, and what will work best in your battle for improved health and empowerment.

Find books that will educate you on the effects of sugar and its addictive effects. These three have been my favorites, one of which I read over 5 years ago when I first started this journey:

Figure out what your goal is. Do you want more energy and to decrease your risk of certain diseases? Do you want to move toward an entirely sugar-free life? Or do you just want to get to a point of balance, where you can eat sweets on special occasions but have the self control to stop at one slice, or avoid a week-long sugar binge? Knowing your goals is just as important with this journey as with any other.

Improve your gut health. Many sugar cravings are caused by candida (yeast) overgrowth in our guts. This can be improved by eating more alkaline foods, avoiding sugars and other carbs that feed this yeast, taking probiotics, and other gut healing approaches such as adding bone broth, organic gelatin, and biotin to your diet.

Get more sleep. Sleep deprivation — something I also struggle with — leads your body to seek “quick” sources of usable energy. The easiest? Sugars. When you haven’t slept enough and are running low on energy, you’ll often subconsciously run to junk foods and sugars that your body can convert to quick energy. Sleeping longer and on a regular schedule can ward off many sugar cravings.

Drink more water. Many hunger pangs are actually just dehydration signals. If you aren’t drinking enough water, you may feel the urge to snack when you’re not even actually hungry. This is a huge issue if you’re tracking food, sticking to a meal plan or diet, or want to stay away from “snack foods,” many of which contain high amounts of sugar, salt, or fat. Be sure you’re drinking a minimum of half your body weight in ounces each day, to stay adequately hydrated.

If you think you could use help, find a functional medicine doctor. They are well-versed in natural approaches and understand the underlying cause of things like sugar addiction. They are also very competent when it comes to improving gut health, and can help you improve your whole body health. The gut, as we are quickly learning, holds the key to many illnesses and diseases. Poor gut health is a sure ticket to cancers, heart disease, and a host of other problems. Keeping your gut happy and balanced will keep your entire body balanced.

What About Artificial Sugars and Sweeteners?

We’ve all seen “sugar free” foods that are still sweet. How can these exist? Well, they use a number of artificial or replacement sweeteners to please your palate, many of which may be even worse for you than refined sugar.

What NOT To Buy?

Of course, we’ve got a number of controversial artificial sweeteners that are now being studied to determine just how dangerous they are to our bodies. These include acesuflame potassium (marketed as Sweet One® and Sunett®), aspartame (Equal®, Nutrasweet®, Sugar Twin®), neotame (Newtame®), and saccharine (Sweet’N’Low®, Sweet Twin®, Necta Sweet®). Many of them have been found to cause headaches, visual and mental disturbances, and even kidney damage with prolonged use. I don’t know about you, but I would rather not even chance it.

There are even some “natural” sweeteners that I would avoid when you can. Some people use agave as a healthy alternative, but it actually has more fructose than processed table sugar. Sure, it might be healthier for you from a processing standpoint. As far as your blood sugar is concerned, though, you could be eating a spoonful of white sugar and it wouldn’t make a difference.

The same goes with honey, from a glycemic index standpoint (how quickly it raises your blood sugar). However, I am a strong supporter of raw, local honey for its myriad of health benefits, including enzymes, antioxidants, and local pollen (which can help substantially for those who get seasonal allergies!). I talk about honey’s benefits a bit in my recent face mask recipe post. As long as it’s used in moderation — and you only use unheated, unprocessed, completely raw, and LOCAL kinds — honey is worth keeping in the cabinet.

What SHOULD I Use?

Safer alternatives do exist. My favorite, and the seemingly-safest choice around, is Sweet Leaf®. This product is made from the stevia plant, which is naturally about 200 times sweeter than sugar. There are many stevia products out there. Some of them are so processed, though, that they actually contain very little stevia by the time they’re packaged/

A product called Truvia® is very popular, but it actually goes through a 42 step production process. This includes chemical extraction using solvents. By the time it makes it to your cabinet, it actually contains less than 1% of stevia. I would stay far, far away from these.

Sweet Leaf® is one of the most readily found versions out there, and not only has 0 calories and 0 carbs, and most importantly, no glycemic index. This means that it will not spike your blood sugar, as many sweeteners still can. It’s very sweet, remember, so a tiny sprinkle goes a looonnggg way. I buy the convenient little packets and put the tiniest amount in my coffee or on toast with cinnamon.

There are other brands of stevia that go through very little processing, but many of them are not FDA approved (don’t let that hold too much weight with you, however. The FDA approved quite a bit that can harm your body, while denying approval to many natural foods and supplements).

The best stevia, and the type that is closest to the actual plant, would be a green stevia powder. One good brand out there is Organic Traditions. Note, though, that some people find that natural stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste. It is still very sweet, though, and not everyone notices this. But, I wanted to mention it.

The Takeaway

Here’s my biggest advice to you, for your health and your waistline. Train yourself to enjoy foods that aren’t drippingly-sweet. Support your gut bacteria and control any gut yeast overgrowth with pre- and probiotics. Eat fermented foods (like kombucha, kefir, skyr, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.). And try to find out if, like me, there seems to be some sort of emotional or psychological trigger causing your sugar cravings.

This added component, combined with the physiological craving that a sugar addiction causes, can make kicking the habit nearly impossible.

Sound off below: do you have issues with sugar? What do you find to be your biggest triggers, and how have you worked to combat the problem?

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