There is a small but prominent section of the fitness community that likes to take to social media, proclaiming that ‘amino acids don’t work’ or that ‘amino acids are a waste of money’. And while there is an element of truth to what they say, it depends on who you are and what you want to achieve.
Today we want to clear this issue up.
As a responsible business, it’s our job to lay out the facts and to put all sides of the argument in context so you can make up your own mind about the best plan of action for you.
It's also important for us to push back against certain groups that think everyone should train and eat in exactly the same way. This is not how the real world works, no matter how much anyone thinks it.
We are all individuals with our own goals, genetics, and environmental influences. What works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else.
Plus, while knowledge and science are relatively easy to obtain online, the real-world applications are a bit tricker. This is where trolls tend to come unstuck.
So let's get into it….
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins present inside all living things (including you). They are important for repair and growth and make up a large percentage of your body's non-water weight.
There are 21 amino acids present in humans (depending on who you speak to, see image below) but there are many many more in the natural environment.
Each amino acid has a primary function, as well as multiple supporting roles. As such, each one is unique. They are critical for a healthy body.
Of the 21, 9 must come from your diet. These are essential amino acids (EAAs). The other 12 can also be obtained from your diet but your body can make these from the 9 EAAs.
When consumed, protein is broken down into amino acids in your digestive system. These can then be used by the body – but there is no way for the body to store protein or amino acids. That’s why it’s important to regularly consume protein.
Do amino acids work?
In short, yes amino acids work. As you read in the information above, they are important in all bodily processes. If you’re alive and reading this, you will need amino acids to survive!
This is a key counter-argument for trolls.
To say that they don’t work is a ludicrous statement; your body is consuming, manufacturing and using them all the time to stay alive.
And while most of the amino acids you need should be obtained from your diet, free-form amino acid supplements can also be used at specific times in specific situations. For instance, to give athletes or people with certain health disorders particular benefits.
They are not a substitute for optimal nutrition and protein consumption. It’s a supplement to a good diet. Supplements can be very powerful and helpful in real-world situations when perfect dietary conditions are not possible.
With more 300,000 Google Scholar articles exploring the effects of amino acid supplements during exercise, there are lots of arguments for and against. The real questions are 'why are you using them and what is your goal?'.
Why would someone say that ‘Amino Acids don’t work?’
There is a group of amino acids called BCAAs. These are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. They are probably the most widely known about and the most widely sold amino acid product available on the sports supplement market. They have played a large role in the bodybuilding community in the past. As a result, they have made their way into the mainstream in recent years.
People who aren’t in the know will assume that BCAAs are synonymous with all amino acids and vice versa – not that they make up only 3 of the 21 that your body needs.
BCAAs became popular because evidence in the 80s and 90s showed that they switch on muscle protein synthesis and tell the muscle to repair itself. This science is still true; BCAAs do play a role in switching on our muscle cells for repair, especially leucine. But the most up-to-date evidence shows that this process is not as effective when BCAAs aren’t supported by the other six EAAs.
This means that people who have done some limited research call out amino acids, saying they are ineffective. What they actually mean is that the BCAAs are not as effective at switching on and sustaining the repair process as essential amino acids, or a complete protein source,
A second factor is that the majority of people who claim amino acids don’t work are focused on building muscle and bodybuilding. Their focus is to grow as large as possible.
From scientific research, we know the main way to grow is to increase your calorie intake from food. Using a BCAA supplement, which is low in calories, doesn’t appear to support their particular goal (although it will help to stimulate protein synthesis). There may be better ways to achieve their goal, like mass gainer shakes.
However, just because it doesn’t necessarily help their main goal, they think that it must be the case for every athlete. This is far from the truth.
They need to consider that there are multiple goals, such as getting leaner, supporting health and improving performance. Amino acids can play a role in each of these. Let us be clear: it’s not just about growth, size and building muscle. Only a small (but noisy) group of people want this outcome.
Only a small percentage of athletes can eat 6 protein-focused meals throughout the day while getting optimal hydration and sleep. It's unrealistic to assume that this is normal and that the average gym-goer wants to achieve those goals.
In conclusion, amino acids work. The 21 amino acids in our bodies all have a specific function in sustaining a healthy lifestyle.
We want to get most of our amino acids from a healthy, balanced diet. Because they can’t be stored, we have to eat protein regularly.
On top of this consistent intake of protein, free-form amino acid supplements (alongside any supplement that science proves works) can be used at specific times to give a desired effect. As such, EAAs can be a very powerful intra-workout tool.
In certain cases, these needs must be supported even more e.g vegans, elite athletics, dietary restrictions, where extra amino acids must be consumed.
Supplements are not a replacement for good nutrition and diet. They are meant to support a particular goal. There is no magic bullet. You will see more results by improving your diet in the first instance, before choosing a supplement.
Amino acids are not needed by everyone. However, they can be an effective tool for optimising specific goals for certain individuals when used properly.
The key is to understand individual athletes and their needs. Don’t just throw out blanket dogmatic ideas based on what works for you. Learn first and apply second.
We hope this helps. Got a question email [email protected] and we will get back to you.