Tag Archive: fat loss

Do you need BCAAs?

BCAAs are a popular supplement currently used for everything from weight loss to muscle soreness and muscle growth. Let’s explore what they are, how they’re used and if they’re needed.


BCAA stands for “branched chain amino acid,” which are building blocks of proteins. A chain of amino acids make up a protein. There are two categories (some argue three), which include essential and non-essential amino acids. ESSENTIAL amino acids are not naturally produced by your body and you must supplement them externally. Foods that have all 9 essential amino acids are called “complete” proteins. Complete proteins are usually animal proteins – everything from milk to meat and cheese. Non-animal product complete proteins include quinoa, hempseed, chia, soy, spinach and a few others. Protein sources that don’t have all 9 essential amino acids are called incomplete proteins. NON-ESSENTIAL amino acids are produced naturally by your body and don’t often need supplementation.


There are many claims about what BCAAs do – let’s investigate them.

  • HELP WITH MUSCLE SORENESS: no evidence to support this
  • HELPS CARDIOVASCULAR PERFORMANCE: no evidence to support this
  • HELPS WITH WEIGHT LOSS: no evidence to support this
  • DECREASES FATIGUE (MENTAL) DURING EXERCISE: Slightly lower when supplemented >10g during exercise
  • DECREASES FATIGUE (PHYSICAL) DURING EXERCISE: People claim they increase the time to exhaustion in prolonged endurance exercise – but this has only been shown in lightly trained or untrained athletes.
  • INCREASES FAT OXIDATION IN PROLONGED EXERCISE: Some studies show this, but it’s unsure if this is due to glycogen preservation or not
  • Further studies show no effect on cortisol or insulin levels, as well as epinephrine, etc.


While many of the original claims of the usefulness of BCAAs have been debunked over the last few years, one claim that sticks around is its effect on muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This is the idea that supplementing with BCAAs will increase muscle growth and even be muscle sparing during weight loss.

These claims come from studies around leucine, one of the essential amino acids. This amino acid alone was shown to increase MPS due to its effects on mTOR (mammalian target or rapamycin). Various studies explored how supplementing leucine could be used. When leucine was supplemented alone the results weren’t significant, but when paired with a protein source MPS was higher. This is most likely because it interacts with isoleucine and valine to create the best stimulus. Further studies show that if you add leucine to your post workout protein and carb source you’ll have more MPS than with just protein or just carbs. It also reduced protein breakdown.


Most of these studies advocate for supplementing 2.5 g of leucine per meal, for a total of 8-10g of leucine a day.


  • A scoop of whey protein: 2.5 g of leucine
  • 142g of chicken: 2.5 g leucine
  • 142g of round beef: 2.5 g leucine
  • 4.6 whole large eggs: 2.5g of leucine
  • BCAAs: ~2.5g/serving


TUI (tolerable upper intake) is 500mg/kg, as it can increase ammonia levels.


  • BCAAs are made up of the building blocks of protein, the most important of these for muscle stimulus is leucine
  • When pairing leucine with protein (and, more specifically, the amino acids valine and isoleucine) you have a higher muscle protein synthesis than just carbs or just protein
  • Complete sources of protein are also high in leucine and can be supplemented if BCAAs are cost prohibitive
  • Vegans/vegetarians/those who dislike animal protein would benefit from supplementing BCAAs to ensure they get all their essential amino acids
  • BCAAs do not decrease muscle soreness, help with weight loss, or effect insulin


  1. Blomstrand E, Hassmén P, Newsholme EA Effect of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on mental performance . Acta Physiol Scand. (1991)
  2. Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss
  3. Elango R, et al Determination of the tolerable upper intake level of leucine in acute dietary studies in young men . Am J Clin Nutr. (2012)
  4. Liu Z, et al Branched chain amino acids activate messenger ribonucleic acid translation regulatory proteins in human skeletal muscle, and glucocorticoids blunt this action . J Clin Endocrinol Metab. (2001)
  5. Lynch CJ, et al Regulation of amino acid-sensitive TOR signaling by leucine analogues in adipocytes . J Cell Biochem. (2000)
  6. Shimomura Y, et al Effects of squat exercise and branched-chain amino acid supplementation on plasma free amino acid concentrations in young women . J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). (2009)
  7. Shimomura Y, et al Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness . Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2010)
  8. van Hall G, et al Ingestion of branched-chain amino acids and tryptophan during sustained exercise in man: failure to affect performance . J Physiol. (1995)

Fasted Cardio: Myth or Fact?

Fasted cardio is one of the hottest topics amongst dieters, especially those who compete in body building. The idea of doing cardio on an empty stomach first thing in the morning makes sense to some people – with no immediate source of energy, won’t your body burn stored fat for energy? There’s compelling evidence for and against fasted cardio, so I thought I’d break down the main points of various studies for both sides and let you chose.


One study that is often cited (Bonen, A. et al. (2008). Effect of training in the fasted state on metabolic responses during exercise with carbohydrate intake. Journal of Applied Physiology. Apr;104(40):1045-55) showed that training fasted actually increased your muscle glycogen stores, making it a great adjunct to endurance athlete’s training. The idea is that increasing the body’s ability to store glycogen will allow athletes to compete at higher intensity long term.

Another study looked at supplementing your fasted cardio with caffeine and yohimbe and found that this increased catecholamines in the body, which helped to break down fat stores more readily. So fasted cardio, at least in the short term, increases the bodys’ ability to burn fat.

But, that’s pretty much where the science ends. The idea of fasted cardio – that your body would used its reserves instead of readily available food – was greater than the research. Now powerhouses such as Dr. Layne Norton and pretty much all of science have decided the cons far outweigh the pros.


A lot of data for this comes from a study done through The Strength and Conditioning Journal (Volume 33). They found that the thermogenic effect of exercise (that is, your long term calorie burn) is HIGHER if you’ve eaten before exercise. They also found that training fasted decreased your overall energy output, so if you felt sluggish you didn’t put as much effort into a training session as someone who ate before.

What is more alarming than this is the catabolic effect fasted cardio can gave. Muscle catabolism is exactly what everyone wants to avoid – why train fasted if you could possibly lose muscle in the process? Proteolysis (the break down of protein) is higher in fast training and nitrogen losses more than doubled in this state.

So what’s the take home message with these studies? Know your goals. If you’re trying to maintain muscle and lose fat then eating something before doing your cardio (oatmeal, BCAAs, egg whites, pop tarts, etc.) can help you from losing muscle and keep your energy high. If you’re an endurance athlete then fasted cardio can contribute to your glycogen stores. With this information you can make appropriate decisions based on your own goals and levels of fitness.

People tend to overestimate the amount of calories they burn

People tend to overestimate the amount of calories they burn. Period.

Ever been to a spin/zumba/fitness class and overheard this: “I just burned 600 calories on the elliptical and now I’m going to burn another 600 in this class!” I have. These same people in my life tend to complain about their inability to lose weight, barely break a sweat during these exercises and/or become frustrated that despite their hours at the gym nothing is budging. I was one of these girls once. I would hop on the elliptical and plug away for an hour then subtract 600 calories from my daily intake, and eat that 600 calories back.

Problem? Machines lie. Yep. I did this exercise above wearing a heart rate monitor and I clocked 21 calories. 21! That’s a far cry from 100 calories. This lies the same way that an elliptical says that the girl reading Cosmo without breaking a sweat burns the same amount of calories as the girl going HAM on the machine next to her. There has to be a conspiracy here.

These machines do not know how hard these exercises are for you. They’re also automatically set for a 150 pound female. They also can’t judge your heart rate. They can’t tell that you’re a marathon runner and you’re cross training on the elliptical, or that you’ve never so much as run a mile in your entire life. Without knowing your heart rate these machines are, at best, a guestimate.

This is a very common theme. It may not seem like a big deal to overestimate how many calories you burn going to a spin class or just running around the block, but over time it can be. Take me for example: I burn about 342 calories during my spin class, according to my HRM. I’ve heard an instructor claim, “How was that for a 600 calorie burn!” after a class. What? First of all, there is no way everyone was at the same level of fitness. Second of all, no. And I know for a fact that some people take these words as law and go home and subtract 600 calories from their intake for the day then eat it back. That’s almost 300 calories overestimating. 300 calories 3 times a week = 900 calories a week. That’s detrimental to weight loss and maintenance.

Machines, websites and people always will overestimate how many calories they burn. Invest in a heart rate monitor or pay attention to how you feel when you exercise if you’re tracking calories. If you’re not sweating during cardio, if your heart rate is not up, chances are you’re not working as hard as the machine thinks you are.

What is lean body mass?

Lean body mass is the total weight of your organs, muscles and bones – essentially the weight of everything in your body MINUS fat.

How do you figure out lean body mass?

Simple. Body weight – (body weight x fat %). If you know your body fat percentage then you can subtract the amount of fat you have off of your body weight and figure out how much lean body mass you have.

Example: I am 134 pounds and have 22% body fat. 134 – (134 x .22) = 104.6 or so. I have 104.6 pounds of lean body mass.

Why is this important?

There are a lot of reasons that lean body mass is tracked. First of all, if you’re trying to build muscle you want to make sure that your weight gain is due to an increase in muscle and not fat. Vice versa, if you’re trying to lose fat you can use it to ensure that you’re losing fat and not muscle.

You’ve also heard the adage that muscle burns more calories than fat. Recently science has proven that a pound of muscle burns 6 calories a day vs. fat burning 2 calories per day. Knowing your lean body mass and tracking it can be beneficial to understanding the metabolic needs of your body.

So is this my ideal weight?

Nope. If your lean body mass was your ideal weight, you’d *theoretically* be aiming for 0% body fat. 0% body fat is an unlivable condition. Lean body mass is simply another indicator of weight, much like body fat percentage, weight, measurements, etc.

Clothes fitting tighter immediately after a workout?

Nothing is more amazing than taking a long cycle class or working up a serious sweat at the gym. After a good work out I usually feel and look at least 5 pounds lighter….until I try to put on my clothes. Ever had that experience before? One minute you’ve sworn you’re 10 lbs lighter for all the sweat you just expelled and the next you’re struggling to pull on your favorite pair of jeans that fit perfect just an hour earlier. What gives?

Blood. That’s what.

When you exercise your heart rate increases, we all know this. Your heart rate goes up because your heart has to pump blood to the muscles that you’re using in order to get adequate oxygen to them. Ever do 50 bicep curls and then suddenly you can feel your heart beating in your bicep? That’s because your body is pumping more blood to that area. It’s why your biceps look so much bigger after and during a work out than before. What does this mean? Is the blood making your muscles look bigger? Yes and no.

Everyone knows about veins and arteries – they’re the major highways that transport blood throughout your body. Coming off of these are little capillaries that spread to all the places your arteries and veins don’t reach. When you use a muscle often and build it up you increase the amount of capillaries in that region. The more bicep curls, the more muscle in that area, the more blood it needs, the more capillaries. When you’re not working out these capillaries don’t fill with as much blood as they do during a work out. There’s really no need to – your body is busy sending the blood to your internal organs to help digest food and transport nutrients and oxygen. During a work out your body decreases blood flow to these organs and instead sends it preferentially to your muscles.

So don’t fret if you go for a 10 mile run and suddenly your jeans are so tight you’re worried you’re going to Hulk out of them. Look at it as proof of a good work out. Let some time pass and the blood circulation will return to normal and your pants should fit again in no time.