Amino acids are the building blocks that make up protein. Your body puts them together like Legos to create muscle. While your body can make some from scratch (called non-essential amino acids), you have to obtain others (essential amino acids), from food or supplements. These essential amino acids-especially a certain kind called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)-are the limiting factor in your body's ability to build muscle. Here's more on what the BCAAs are, the benefits of BCAAs, and how to get them into your diet.
Whether you're trying to shed pounds or beat your PR, increasing your muscle mass is essential, since it's key to both weight loss and performance. Also, muscle is built very, very slowly. While fat loss can be easily accelerated, muscle building cannot. However, muscle burns calories all day long-meaning you'll burn more calories during Muscles and Mimosas and you'll burn more calories sitting on the couch. Even if you aren't trying to add more muscle, you break down muscle during exercise that needs to be rebuilt so that you can work out again the next day. Which is why we always put a priority on maintaining the muscle you have and potentially building up more-which requires getting enough protein and the right amino acids.
Benefits of BCAAs
There are three types of BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are called branched-chain amino acids because their chemical makeup has a unique branched structure (like a tree branch). This gives them some interesting abilities that no other amino acids have.
One big perk of BCAAs is that they help prevent muscle breakdown. They help increase the rate in which your body can build proteins so you aren't breaking down muscle faster than you can rebuild. Leucine is the key BCAA in this process.
BCAAs also provide fuel for exercise. During an intense workout, the unique structure of BCAAs allows them to act as fuel for your muscles. And finally, they may help you slim down: Several studies show a relationship between BCAA intake and leanness, and high intakes of BCAAs are generally associated with a leaner body.
Sources of BCAAs
1. BCAA Supplements: Drinks with BCAAs have become very popular and come in lots of great citrus and fruit flavors that don't taste like you're just drinking protein. These products are fine to use right after exercise or during long training session (over 90 minutes). However, there isn't a lot of scientific evidence to support unique benefits of pure BCAA supplements over other protein drinks or foods that has similar amounts of these amino acids, so don't feel like you have to use a BCAA supplement.
2. Whey protein or milk: A simple shake with whey protein will deliver all the BCAAs that you need along with all the other essential amino acids to round out your muscle building and recovery efforts. Or you can simply have a glass of milk to serve as your nutritional recovery aid. Milk is naturally loaded with BCAAs and the little sugar from the lactose will further aid in recovery after a longer exercise session.
3. Whole foods: Fish, eggs, lean beef, chicken, and turkey all contain ample amounts of these key amino acids. (Plant-based sources are often considered incomplete proteins, but you can combine them to create complete proteins.)
4. Pea or rice protein: Plant protein is generally lower in BCAAs, but pea protein is an exception in this area. Just make sure to take in more total protein to get all the essential amino acids your body needs. One study published in Nutrition Journal found that 40g of rice protein worked just as well as 40g of whey protein when it came to improving body composition.
BCAAs are beneficial for muscle growth and improving your body composition. However, there’s no need to run out an empty your wallet at the supplement store. There are natural foods to eat after your workout. The important thing is to move with intention and love what you eat.
Jacqueline corbett, ms rd ld
Registered Dietitian, #NKFitSquad Contributor
For those of us old enough to remember the early 2000s with any clarity (sorry, Gen Z!) the keto diet is reminiscent of another low-carb eating plan: the Atkins diet. Once wildly popular, the diet somewhat faded in the background in favor of other eating plans like Paleo and Whole30. But now that low-carb eating is back on our radar, it seems as though diet trends are just repeating themselves. Given that they’re both low-carb, high-fat diets, they can’t be that different, right? Not quite. Read on for full comparison.
What is keto again?
In case you missed last week’s post, the ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein way of eating. Keto macros are very strict with only 5% to 10% of daily calories from carbs, 15% to 20% protein, and a whopping 75% to 80% fat.
The diet was originally created in the 1920’s to help children with drug-resistant epilepsy control their symptoms; it has recently become way more popular among adults due to its ability to burn fat. A healthy keto diet will consist of well-raised animal proteins (grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, and wild-caught seafood), healthy fats (Natalie’s avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, olives, and coconuts), and non-starchy vegetables, like leafy greens and cruciferous veggies, for fiber and micronutrients.
So what is the Atkins diet?
The Atkins diet has been around since the 1970’s; it was created by cardiologist Dr. Robert Atkins after researching ways people could safely lose excess weight without restricting calories, according to the Atkins website. The eating plan became super popular with celebrities and many of our parents in the early 2000s.
Like keto, Atkins is a low-carb, high-fat diet. It functions in three to four phases, where a person’s macronutrient intake changes throughout each phase. In the first two weeks, you eat less than 20g of carbs per day. Then you slowly add in more carbs from vegetables, nuts, and small amounts of fruit. This means that the macros shift on the diet. So, phase one of the classic Atkins diet (also called Atkins 20) calls for around 10% daily calories coming from carbs, 30% protein, and 60% fat. (This first phase technically puts you in ketosis, according to the Atkins website.) Those ratios shift by the end of the program to allow for more carbs and less fat.
There are other versions of Atkins, like the Atkins 40, which is just a low-carb eating plan that doesn’t have phases in the same way as Atkins 20. It allows for 40g carbs per day and flexible servings of fat and protein.
Keto vs Atkins: What’s the difference?
While both plans are low-carb and high in fat, the macros are a bit different. Keto allows for less protein and more fat than in the strictest phase of Atkins. Another big difference: Keto restricts carbs indefinitely in order to sustain ketosis. Meanwhile, Atkins increases your carb intake during its later phases, thereby taking you out of ketosis. The main focus of Atkins isn’t necessarily to be in ketosis, of course, while that is the main purpose of the keto diet.
It’s important to note that the long-term benefits of a low-carb plan, whether it is Atkins or keto, are up for debate in the health community. Some experts warn that restricting carbs for extended periods of time could cause pretty negative health effects, from constipation due to lack of fiber to disrupting delicate hormone balances in women. Research is also mixed: One 2018 study found that people who cut carbs increased their metabolism and burned more calories compared to people who cut fat, while another one published earlier in the year found no significant difference between low-carb and low-fat plans for weight management. Yet other research has found that low-carb, high-fat diets have the potential to treat diabetes and potentially even schizophrenia. More human clinical trials are needed before we can make definitive conclusions.
However, because Atkins ultimately allows for more carbs than keto, it could come with some health perks that are harder to get on the keto diet. Most people will be able to eat more fruits and veggies in Atkins and therefore getting more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, since the keto diet has more guidelines around it, there may be more potential for benefit. Atkins is a little more ambiguous once you get out of the first two phases. With more restriction in keto, you may reap more benefits sooner. But don’t forget, keto is hard to do and carries more of a risk for vitamin deficiency due to the vegetable restriction.
If done properly with limited processed foods, plenty of green vegetables, and well-raised, organic proteins, both diets can be healthy options that lead to benefits. Eat real, whole foods, monitor your carb intake, and move as much as possible. Your body will thank you.
Jacqueline Corbett, ms rd ld
Registered Dietitian, #NKFitSquad Contributor
It seems impossible to open a blog, listen to a podcast, or see a magazone cover in the grocery checkout without seeing something about the trendy . But for people on the keto diet, the menu choices get even more limited. That’s because the low-carb, high-fat eating plan has very particular macros that can limit your food options (sorry, but pasta and rice are totally out the window).
The typical keto diet macros are: 75% to 80% of calories from fat, 15% to 20% from protein, and only 5% to 10% from carbs. People might play with those macros depending on their particular health goals and needs, or on their particular interpretation of keto; the “Ketotarian” diet, which advocates for a more plant-based approach, allows for up to 15% of calories from carbs.
Why the intense focus on macros? Basically, this is the ratio of fats to carbs that allows a person to achieve ketosis—when the body switches from burning carbohydrates to fats as its primary source of energy. Ketosis “unlocks” keto’s main potential health benefits, from effective weight management to balanced blood sugar, reduced inflammation, and increased mental clarity. So, how you build your plate at mealtime is key to ensuring you stay in ketosis and maintain adequate nutrition.
Done correctly, a healthy keto diet will consist of lots of well-raised animal proteins (grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and wild-caught seafood), healthy fats (Natalie’s avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, olives, coconuts, etc.) and non-starchy vegetables for fiber and micronutrients.
1. Portion out your plate
If you’ve just started keto or you’re thinking about it, you need to portion out your favorite veggies, carbs (whatever you can eat), protein, and fats to satisfy your hunger and burn those ketones. The plate should look like it consists of ¼ fat, but keep in mind that your veggies will be topped with fat and your meat may also have fat. So really, fat is dispersed across your plate rather than just in one spot.
In terms of healthy fats, some great options include avocado oil, coconut oil, avocados, coconut, olives, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed ghee or butter, and grass-fed, organic animal fats. Use these for dressings and cooking techniques, as well as high-fat choices for proteins or protein toppers (think avocado on a burger). You can also snack on fats for snacks, like nut butter or MCT oil in a smoothie.
2. Load up on vegetables
On keto, non-starchy veggies should take up half your plate. Think lots of leafy greens, bok choy, cucumber, zucchini, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Vegetables contain vital micronutrients like fiber, folate, B vitamins, calcium, as well as antioxidants. However: keep in mind that even though veggies may take up half your plate, they are not calorically dense and therefore don’t actually amount to much of the macronutrient distribution. Therefore, you’ll need to add fats and proteins to adequately fuel up. Top your vegetables with (or cook them in) healthy fats like avocado oil, ghee, or extra virgin olive oil for extra fats to burn ketones and to keep you fuller longer.
3. Keep your carbs to a minimumThe only carbs you eat on the keto diet should come from vegetables (think sweet potatoes and other starchy options). You can also get carbs on occasion from low-sugar fruits like blackberries or apricots, provided they don’t push your allotted carb macros over their daily limit. For that reason, there isn’t a precise set ratio for carbs, but rather a carb count within your half-plate of veggies, however it may fit.
4. Don’t go overboard on protein
There’s a common perception that the keto diet involves massive amounts of steak, bacon, and other fatty meat. In reality, up to ¼ of your plate should be protein. The type of protein depends on preferences, but it’s always recommended to source the best quality you can afford. Since those following a keto diet may be eating higher fat meats, it’s particularly important to aim for high-quality meats, since things like hormones, antibiotics, and toxins end up in the animal’s fat. Load up on eggs, avocado, nuts, and tempeh if you’re on keto but limiting meat intake.
To recap, a very generalized example of a healthy keto plate would be half vegetables, a fourth protein, and a fourth healthy fats (with more fats incorporated throughout).
Some sample keto meal ideas: Fill your plate with sautéed mushrooms, bok choy, and asparagus cooked in grass-fed ghee, then add 3oz grass-fed sirloin steak cooked in a pat of pastured butter (or swap the beef for skin-on chicken thighs). Breakfast could consist of a veggie omelette with some cheese, cooked in olive oil or grass-fed, organic butter.
The plate can stay consistent for all meals, since the macros are the same whether you’re eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Some people may practice intermittent fasting and not eat breakfast, but that still doesn’t impact what their plate looks like when they do eat. Consistency is key for achieving and maintaining ketosis—which hopefully should make things easier for meal prep, too.
Jacqueline Corbett, MS RD LD
Registered Dietitian, #NKFitSquad Dietitian
Women's Health & Fitness Specialist.