EAA Vs BCAA Supplements: What’s The Difference & Which Is Better?

EAA and BCAA supplements side by side

So you want to build muscle but aren’t sure if you should take amino acid supplements? After reading this article, you’ll know the difference between essential amino acids (EAA) vs. branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) and which supplement will allow you to maximize your lean muscle protein synthesis. 

What are Amino Acids?

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins” before, but what does that actually mean? If you imagine a protein as a train, amino acids are the cars attached to the train system. Like train cars, each amino acid is unique in structure and serves a different role. Some cars transport people or hold various cargo, and some have an engine providing power. 

Visual guide to essential amino acids structure

There are 20 unique amino acids. When these amino acids are assembled in a certain order or combination they create different proteins. Our bodies are made of over 100,000 different proteins. Some of these proteins contain only a few amino acids, while others use all 20, these are called complete proteins. 

Non-essential Amino Acids

Visual guide illustrating non-essential amino acids relationships

Non-essential amino acids are those we do not need to consume through our diet because our bodies make them from scratch. 

These amino acids are:

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)

Detailed illustration showcasing essential amino acids and their structures

There are nine essential amino acids that we must get from our diet, our body cannot make them, but they are essential for protein synthesis. We get these by eating protein foods or taking supplements.

These amino acids are:

  • Phenylalanine
  • Valine
  • Tryptophan
  • Threonine
  • Isoleucine
  • Methionine
  • Histidine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Diagram illustrating Branched Chain Amino Acids

Branched-chain amino acids are a group of 3 amino acids which are also essential amino acids. They are a special group because of their unique branched structure and they play an important role in muscle tissue synthesis.

These amino acids are:

  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Valine

Conditionally Essential Amino Acids

Conditionally essential amino acids are those which under “normal” circumstances are non-essential. However, during certain diseases, metabolic states or life stages, it is essential that we get them through our diet.

These amino acids are:

  • Arginine
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamine
  • Tyrosine
  • Glycine 
  • Proline
  • Serine

Muscle Protein Synthesis

Increasing muscle mass requires both resistance training and amino acid intake. Specifically, research has shown that essential amino acids have the greatest impact on muscle synthesis. They do this in two different ways:

  1. EAAs/BCAAs (Leucine in particular) act as a signal to activate the protein synthesis machinery. 
  2. Amino acids need to be available to be incorporated into the new proteins.

To have muscle growth you need to be in a positive amino acids balance. Your body can then synthesize new proteins and assemble them into new muscle fibres.

Illustration depicting the process of Muscle Protein Synthesis

EAA vs. BCAA: Key Differences

All BCAAs are EAAs, but, not all EAAs are BCAAs.

Are EAAs Better than BCAAs for Muscle Growth?

The research shows that it is critical that you are ingesting sufficient amounts of EAAs to stimulate muscle growth. However, the most critical amino acid is leucine, which is a BCAA. 

Detailed view of the shoulder's interior

EAAs vs. BCAAs: Which Should You Take?

To maximize your lean muscle synthesis you need to be consuming sufficient amounts of all of the EEAs in conjunction with your resistance training. However, this question is a bit futile considering BCAAs are EAAs. We’ve already discussed how important BCAAs are, so if you’re choosing an EAA supplement (rather than only BCAAs) make sure that it contains sufficient amounts of leucine, isoleucine and valine. We also created a super helpful list of the best BCAA’s on the market if you feel like you want to go in that direction.

Do You Need an Amino Acid Supplement?

You should consult your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regime to ensure that it is safe for your body. 

To determine if an amino acid supplement is right for you, start by considering what your other sources of amino acids are:

  • How much protein are you getting from animal sources?
  • How much protein are you getting from plant sources?
  • Are you taking other supplements? Are you getting enough amino acids from your protein powder?
Illustration depicting various sources of amino acids in a nutritional diagram

Different protein sources have different amino acid profiles. For example chicken is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the EAAs. Whereas beans are lacking in some of the EAAs. Moreover, our ability to digest and absorb all of the amino acids from food sources differs by individual foods. 

So, if you’re looking to maximize your muscle growth you may want to consider an amino acid supplement.

How to Use Amino Acid Supplements

women enjoying glasses of vibrant red refreshment

Based on the current evidence, it doesn’t appear that the time that you take your EAA/BCAA supplement is crucial.

Thirty minutes after you take a BCAA supplement it will peak in your bloodstream. So you can choose which works best for you – taking it before or after your workout. 

A review of the literature has shown that there were positive effects when BCAA supplements were taken daily and at a high frequency – splitting the dose so you’re taking it 2+ times per day.

Suggested Dosages 

In general, the recommended dosage is 12 grams for men and 9 grams for women. However, depending on your body weight and activity level you may need a different dosage. 

The ideal ratio of BCAAs in your supplement is 2:1:1 for leucine:isoleucine:valine.

Recommended doses displayed next to a set of dumbbells

Benefits of Amino Acids While Fasting

As mentioned above, being consistent with your amino acid supplement is more important than timing. However, if you want to spread out your amino acid consumption throughout the day, then consuming your protein-rich meals at a different time from your EEA supplement may be beneficial.

In a study on piglets taking BCAA supplements in a fasted or fed state, it was found that when in a reduced-protein fasted state, BCAA supplementation inhibited protein degradation, which is important for muscle growth.     

What’s the Best EAA Supplement?

What to look for in an amino acid supplement

Before purchasing any supplement, you need to look for the following things:

  • What are the ingredients? Are there any allergens?
  • Do they have third-party certification?

You should also look at your other supplements to see what you actually need. Does your pre-workout already contain BCAAs? What is the amino acid profile of your protein powder?

For an overview of amino acids vs essential amino acids vs branched-chain amino acid supplements check out this breakdown of The Best Essential Amino Acid Supplements in 2023 to help you make the best choice.

Man reaching for products on store shelf

Key Takeaways

  • Amino acids are a necessary component for building new muscle 
  • Essential amino acids, specifically branched chain amino acids, have critical roles in activating protein synthesis and promoting muscle growth 
  • You can get amino acids by eating protein foods or taking supplements 
  • EEA supplements are a popular among athletes for building muscle mass  

Frequently Asked Questions

Should you mix EEA with BCAA?

If you’re already taking an EAA supplement that contains adequate amounts of BCAAs, you do not need to take an additional BCAA supplement. 

You do need to consume all of the 9 EAAs, but if you’re getting those from food sources, you can top up your BCAAs with a supplement.

Can I take EAA without working out?

It’s important to be consistent with your supplements over time, so taking them daily, even if you aren’t working out could help you to see greater effects over time. 

Does EAA have side effects?

If EAA and BCAA supplements are taken at high doses there can be amino acid side effects, so it’s important to consider all of your sources of amino acids before opting for another supplement. 

These side effects include; stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, and potential harm to your kidneys and blood pressure. 

Always consult a healthcare professional if you have questions or concerns about your supplement use.

References

Emma Wiwchar | Registered Dietitian

Emma Wiwchar | Registered Dietitian

Emma is a Registered Dietitian and Freelance Nutrition Writer. She holds a BSc from the University of Alberta and is registered with the College of Dietitians of Alberta.

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More posts from Emma Wiwchar | Registered Dietitian

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