Making the Most of Essential and Branched Chain Amino Acids

Chicken kababsDo you know the role of amino acids in your diet? The science can be a bit complex, but to eat healthy for fitness, you only need to learn the basics to make the most of them.

What are amino acids and why do you need them?

Amino acids are integral to many important functions taking place within your body at any time. These include the synthesis of proteins, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters, plus contributions to metabolic pathways and mental stabilization.

There are essential amino acids, or EAAs, which help your body repair muscles, fuel your mind and recover from hard work. You must take these in through your diet, because your body can’t make them, and as named, they are essential.

  1. Phenylalanine— assists with feel-good brain chemistry
  2. Valine— prevents muscle protein breakdown during exercise
  3. Threonine— helps balance proteins in the body
  4. Tryptophan— helps with rest and pain suppression
  5. Isoleucine— aids with growth and development
  6. Methionine— for processing fat and eliminating toxins
  7. Leucine— assists with muscle-building and energy supply
  8. Lysine— supports growth hormones and healing
  9. Histidine— helps fight of free radical damage

There are also BCAAs—branched chain amino acids—which are metabolized in your muscle. That means there is little digestion or “processing” needed to convert BCAAs into an energy source during exercise, and that helps prevent premature muscle breakdown. Some studies indicate BCAA’s may do even more, like stimulate muscle protein synthesis (the process that produces protein to repair muscle damage caused by working out), lower fasting blood glucose and improve red blood cell formation.

How to get EAAs in your diet:

Quality animal protein is perhaps the best natural source of amino acids in your diet. Animal proteins typically provide all nine of the essential amino acids—lean meats, poultry and seafood are among the best sources.

Dairy products and eggs also serve as significant sources of amino acids. Low-fat dairy contains more protein per calorie but full-fat dairy may offer other nutritional benefits.

Plant proteins rarely provide a complete amino acid profile in one item, however two notable standouts are quinoa and soy, which provide all nine essential amino acids.

Amino acid supplements are another popular option. It’s good to note that even people with very large bodies and intense workout regimes can only use so many—somewhere around 10 grams of amino acids consumed three times per day would be as much as the body could use before metabolized excess into sugar or storing as fat.

How to get BCAAs in your diet:

Animal proteins bring you BCAAs along with the EAAs. Lean meats, seafood, dairy and eggs top the list. Good news: if you’re getting a well-rounded natural dose of amino acids through a high protein diet, you’re likely benefitting from both essential and branched chain amino acids.

Supplements. If you want to go for even more of the muscle-sparing, performance enhancing benefits attributed to BCAAs, consider amino acid supplements. As always, understand your supplement needs per your body and training goals. Extremely high doses of BCAAs are typically not required. They are best taken while you are working out to avoid muscle breakdown and provide energy or, if at rest, with protein powder or food-based protein.

Mixed Grill Protein Kebabs

Stir up a Marinade:

  • 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs—rosemary, flat parsley and thyme recommended
Cut up your meats and veggies:

  • 1 – 1.5 pounds sirloin roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 – 1.5 pounds chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2 red onion, cut into 1-inch squares (optional)
  • 1 small bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares (optional)


  1. Mix it all together and let it sit in the fridge for 2 hours, or even overnight.
  2. Thread half of the veggies at the bottom of your skewers, followed by alternating meats, and then finish the top of each skewer with more veggies to hold it all together.
  3. Cook over medium high grill heat for 10 – 12 minutes.