Difference between BCAA and protein supplements

These two products are among the most popular sport supplements used for building up muscle mass and eliminating excess fat deposits. Most athletes take either one of these supplements or both of them, so are they complementing each other, interchangeable or is one of them is clearly a winner? The answer to this question you will find in this article.


BCAA vs Protein
Various nutrition (BCAA and protein among them)

To BCAA (or branched-chain amino acids) belong the following 3 amino acids: L-leucine, L-isoleucine and L-valine. All together they form an amino acid group that is characterized by non-continuous (the same as branched) links of carbon bonds. Any amino acids are building blocks of protein, so in sport supplements they function as concentrated building blocks of protein.

BCAAs are included on the list of essential amino acids the human body requires for proper functioning. In general there are 20 amino acids overall that a human body needs daily, so 10 of them are essential and 3 of these 10 are BCAA’s that are considered to be crucial for serious muscle growth. They help to prevent muscle breakdown during high intensity strength workouts and provide a natural energy source for performance in case of a strictly controlled carbohydrate intake.

BCAAs along with other essential amino acids have the same role as a supplement: to preserve and stimulate the development of muscle mass. According to multiple research and tests, L-leucine is particularly important for muscle growth, therefore most BCAA-based sport supplements have a 2:1:1 (or 3:1:1 or other variants) ratio of L-leucine, L-isoleucine and L-valine, because it is considered to be perfect for athletic goals. Leucine is the amino acid that triggers the process of muscle building and it functions best with the other two BCAAs and with glutamine. That is the reason why whey protein powder is great for anabolic functions – it is high in these amino acids.

While BCAAs play the greatest role in muscle support and development, the WHO (World Health Organization) says that it is very important to maintain high and regular intake of all the essential amino acids in your diet to be able to support the right nitrogen balance.

Protein shake
Protein shake

In a more general meaning, the word “protein” stands for one of three major nutrients (the others are carbohydrates and fats) with a special molecular structure that is broken down into amino acids when digested and then is formed from amino acids to build new protein for body cells and tissues.

Protein is our body’s source of building material. Every single organ and tissue is built of proteins; this nutrient is very important for normal hormone function. When the human body lacks protein it starts breaking down muscles in order to replenish the source of necessary amino acids.

Food rich in protein is meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds and some vegetables. Nowadays another valuable and popular source of protein in the daily menu is protein powder.

In this article it is much more important to equate the notions “protein” with “protein powder” or “protein shakes” (made of powder), as we are comparing two types of supplements.

Most commonly, protein supplements are manufactured from powdered milk proteins (whey and casein) and soy; sometimes other vegetable proteins are used too. Protein rich drinks (shakes) usually have a delicious sweet taste and pleasant texture, due to sweeteners and additives. It makes this type of supplement a great solution for people who care about a healthy lifestyle and nutrition.

BCAA vs Protein

What’s the difference between BCAA and protein supplements? The main difference is their form as a product.

BCAA can be manufactured in tablets, capsules or liquid shots to take before and after a workout or in the form of instant powder for sweetened juice-like drinks that also should be taken before, during or after the workout. BCAA supplements are usually low in calories, don’t bring a sense of fullness and can’t replace a meal.

Protein is manufactured in the form of soluble powder to be mixed with milk or water. The average nutritional value for 1 protein shake (25 g of powder + 1 cup of water) is about 150-160 calories with 16-20 grams of protein and a few grams of fats and carbs.

A protein shake texture depends on the ingredients. Protein powders with multiple components, including casein (slowly digested milk protein) or whole milk protein (consists of 80% casein and 20% whey) usually have a thicker texture and give a good sense of fullness, so they can be easily used throughout the day as a meal replacement high in protein and low in carbs, sugars and calories. Protein powders made of whey are usually liquid and taste more like a milk-like drink than a shake. They provide the same nutritional value, but you may still feel hungry after 15 minutes.

Another major difference is the amino acid profile of these two supplements. As mentioned above, BCAA contains only 3 most important amino acids: L-leucine, L-valine and L-isoleucine. Recent studies show that these three play a great role in muscle recovery and protection against catabolism (muscle breakdown).

The amino acid profile of protein powders mainly depends on the ingredients, but usually all 20 existing amino acids can be found there in different ratios.

Both these supplements are great for people who enjoy working out and want to fuel their muscles with “building blocks”, protect them from breakdown during hard and long workouts and get better and quicker post-workout recovery.

With one serving of BCAA supplement the body receives about 5 g of BCAA amino acids. The same can be found in one serving of a good protein shake.

To sum up, it is up to every single consumer what type of supplements to choose: a more easily digested and quicker soluble BCAA in tablets, capsules, powder or shots, or a meal-replacing, high in nutrients and delicious protein shake.

Comparison Chart

BCAA Protein
Contains 3 most important amino acids for muscle strength and recovery Contains all 20 existing amino acids; their ratio may vary
Available in tablets, capsules, powder or shots Available in powder to mix with liquids for a protein shake or in a form of ready-made and packaged shake (1 serving)
Very low in calories Contains much more calories than BCAA.
Can’t replace a meal Can replace a meal


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