Let’s talk BCAA for vegans. That’s branched-chain amino acids in case you were wondering. Still have no idea what I’m talking about, well you will by the end of this blog.
BCAAs are all part of the conversation about optimum nutrition for vegans, and concerns part of the debate around protein in vegan diets (which isn’t even a debate in my mind, but hey). Chances are your vegan diet already has more than enough protein in it without even having to think twice. However, if you are working out a lot (or even a little) BCAA for vegans are important to know about – learning more about them and adjusting my diet to make sure I am getting enough has MASSIVELY improved my exercise recovery process.
I became curious in BCAA for vegans when I went on a bit of a health kick a few months back, which involved upping my cardio and strength training and going on a vegan collagen smoothie kick. I wasn’t having a problem building muscle, but they ACHED like hell. And I was so so so tired, I expected to feel physically fatigued but I was also mentally exhausted too after working out.
Now it’s no secret that I love me vegan supplements. No, they definitely don’t replace eating well, but they can be a great addition, particularly if you are vegan. After some researching I figured it wasn’t that I was neglecting protein in my diet, but maybe my BCAAs needed some extra attention… and I have to say after a month or so of eating more mindfully but working out just as much I feel less achy, and definitely more mentally alert.
So here is everything you need to know about BCAA for vegans. There are a lot of resources out there on BCAAs but I have teased out all the stuff relevant to being vegan. If you are curious about giving veganism a try in general, I recommend starting with my veganuary tips and then coming back to this guide if your achy muscles need some attention.
BCAA for Vegans: Everything You Need to Know
BCAA for vegans 101
BCAAs are three specific essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine… so, what does that even mean?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. When we eat a protein source (such as soy or nuts if you are vegan) part of the digestion process involves breaking down the protein into amino acids. These amino acids are then utilised by the body to form the protein structures the body needs for optimal functioning and health.
There are 20 common amino acids, 11 non-essential and nine essential. So to clear up any confusion ALL these amino acids are essential, however the 11 (so-called) non-essential ones are readily produced by the body no questions asked. The nine essential ones, however, we HAVE to get through food. BCAAs are three of these nine essential amino acids.
So, what is so special about these three amino acids? Well, they play a key role when it comes to exercise, specifically when it comes to muscle health. BCAAs not only help to build new muscle and maintain existing muscle, but have also been shown to decrease muscle soreness and general fatigue (including mental fatigue) after exercise.
You might have no exercise issues as a vegan, but if you are struggling to build muscle or feeling super fatigued then knowing more about BCAA for vegans specifically could be a real game-changer (pun intended).
Why are BCAAs for Vegans Important?
It’s no secret that meat and some animal products contain all the essential amino acids, but this one-stop shop definitely doesn’t mean they are the best or easiest way of getting protein (just the laziest, and least ethical). If you are looking to build muscle, or reduce post-workout muscle/mental fatigue then making sure you are getting enough BCAAs in your diet and recovery plan is important.
Also, it’s worth saying that this isn’t something that just vegan athletes need to think about, all athletes or people who work out can benefit from considering BCAAs when it comes to muscle health.
There are two options when it comes to BCAA for vegans: making sure you eat a balanced diet and/or vegan BCAAs powders or supplements. But before we get into the best vegan sources of BCAAs, we need to think about the best way to consume them.
One influential review paper on supplementing BCAAs for muscle recovery and growth stresses ‘frequency, amount and duration’. Basically how often do you need to consume BCAAs, in what quantities and for how long. In short: frequently, a fair amount, but most significantly for a longer period of time. Large amounts at every meal for just one week will not bring you benefits, but if you make sure you get enough BCAAs regularly over the weeks, months and years you will reap their benefits.
Although this study looked specifically at supplements and powders I think it’s fair to assume that this is applicable for our diet as well. Maxing out on high protein meals for a week won’t make much difference but ensuring you are getting enough protein consistently in your diet is the way to go.
Best Vegan foods for BCAAs
If you want to eat to maximise muscle health then emphasise vegan sources of protein. Soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and edamame, are great as soy contains all the essential amino acids.
Many other vegan sources of protein, such as seeds and nuts, pulses and lentils, and leafy green vegetables also contain all the BCAAs. However, in order to make sure you are getting all the essential amino acids make sure you are combining your plant-based foods, to maximise nutrition.This really isn’t complicated, a lot of foods that naturally go together end up containing all the essential amino acids.
Some meals I turn to when I need a muscle recovery protein kick include oatmeal with almond butter, smoothies with green powder (spirulina is a great source of vegan-friendly BCAAs), dahl with rice and pumpkin seeds on top, or my favourite vegan laksa with tofu or tempeh and extra spinach.
Above all eating should be delicious, enjoyable and stress-free. If you need a little guidance or inspiration check out my vegan grocery list which is designed for vegan newbies, busy people and foodies alike.
Vegan BCAAs Powders and Supplements
Before deciding whether a supplement makes sense for you it’s worth considering if you actually need it. Are you working out a lot? If so are you struggling to either build or maintain muscle, or finding that you are extra achy or fatigued? If that’s the case a good protein powder ALONGSIDE eating well could be helpful.
There are so many vegan protein powders out there, and you actually don’t need a specific BCAAs powder. Your favourite vegan protein powder should do it –– have a look at the label and make sure it contains all essential amino acids, and see how many grams of leucine, isoleucine and valine it contains per scoop. In general look for higher amounts of leucine, as it is thought to be particularly beneficial for muscles (a 2:1:1 ratio of these amino acids is sometimes recommended). Look for a minimum of 5g of these combined per scoop.
Although you can get specific BCAA for vegan supplements it has actually been found that consuming a general protein powder, containing all the essential amino acids, is more effective for supporting your muscles.
So there you have it! Everything you need to know about BCAAs for vegans.