How BCAAs Can Transform Your Vegan Protein Uptake, Performance & Recovery

June 8, 2023

Back in the day when I had an office job, I used to run 3 times a week and often signed up to competitions with my dad who introduced me to BCAA. Now I do not run anymore, because my forestry job is equal to 3 workouts at times (if not 4) but I still use BCAA to complement my diet for optimal performance.

BCAAs (or Branched Chain Amino Acids) are all part of the conversation about optimum nutrition for vegans, and concerns part of the debate around protein in vegan diets. 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 vegan powders are important—learning more about them and adjusting my diet to make sure I am getting enough has improved my exercise recovery process.

a woman in a polka dot sports bra and matching leggings holding a bottle of protein smoothie.

After some researching, I figured vegan BCAAs needed some extra attention… I have to say after several months of eating more mindfully while working out just as much, I feel the difference in my body and in the quality of work I do. I never really had a  problem when it came to building muscle. But with this intense jobs I do in the forest (planting thousands of trees a day and brush cutting for several hours with heavy machinery, etc.), my problem is that my muscles ache and I get so tired at the end of the day.

As much as I love vegan supplements, I have to admit to the fact that they don’t replace a proper, healthy diet. In my case, it’s not always easy to get enough BCAA only with food, so I keep some supplements with me on the road just in case but I try to get my needs met with what I eat.

What you need to know about vegan BCAA

What BCAA is structurally

Proteins are made up of amino acids. When you eat a protein source, part of the digestion process involves breaking down the protein into amino acids. These amino acids are then utilized 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. To avoid any confusion all of these amino acids are essential for the body. However, the 11 (so-called) non-essential ones are readily produced by the body. The nine essential ones have to be ingested as food. BCAAs are three of these nine essential amino acids.

The nonessential amino acids are: alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. The essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

What is so special about these three amino acids?

These three (isoleucine, leucine, and valine) are particularly important to our muscles, as they help them grow, develop, and maintain their size with leucine being the key to protein synthesis and muscle development. For vegans, getting these through diet can be tough as they are mainly present in red meats or milk, but they can be supplemented directly.

BCAAs are also known for their positive impact on repair and recovery. They target muscle inflammation and soreness to reduce the effects. This enhances your ability in the gym and post-workout results. Failure to consume the correct amount of amino acids can lead to soreness, muscle tightness, as well as overall fatigue.

How to get enough BCAA if you’re vegan

Meat and some other animal products contain all the essential amino acids, but this doesn’t mean they are the best or easiest way of getting protein (just the laziest, and least ethical). Supplementing BCAAs for muscle recovery and growth stresses ‘frequency, amount and duration.’

If you want to eat to maximize muscle health, then emphasize vegan sources of protein.

  1. Soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and edamame, are great as soy contains all the essential amino acids.
  2. Pea, rice, and soy proteins combine to create a complete protein, and usually offer over 22 grams of protein per serving.

Complete proteins are those which contain sufficient levels of all nine essential amino acids. Adding these three plant proteins together helps to provide a full amino acid profile and will have just as much positive effects on building muscle as a whey protein.

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.

Some vegan meals I turn to when I need a muscle recovery protein kick include oatmeal with almond butter and lots of fruits, smoothies with spirulina which is a great source of vegan-friendly BCAAs, and my favorite (super easy to make) dhal with rice.

As well as protein and BCAAs, it is important to supplement other nutrients, vitamins and minerals to make up for the lack of meat. Vitamin B12, Iron and Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in making sure your body is functioning correctly.

What if you need supplementing?

Before deciding whether a supplement is good 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. 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.

Your favorite vegan protein powder should do it. 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.

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Photo: S O C I A L. C U T via Unsplash

Imola is a Hatha and Ashtanga yoga teacher, tree planter and writer and editor of Raised by the Wolf, an online magazine for Wild Women, with a passion for exploring and life outdoors. Originally from Hungary but currently planting trees and rewilding the enchanting forests of France. Hop over to RBTW magazine, and blog and follow her on Instagram @yogiraisedbythewolf


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