The use of protein-rich dietary supplements remains very popular among athletes and average exercisers who want to increase their muscle mass and/ or become leaner. The thing is that the amount of protein recommended we consume daily depends very much on our activity level.
But can taking glutamine and BCAA help you become leaner? Let’s find out.
There is evidence that protein intake needs to increase when athletes restrict calories (during weight training to reduce body fat or to make weight when wrestling, or boxing, for example,) or when they have low body fat. When these athletes are in a negative energy balance, their needs (depending on body composition) can increase up to 3.1 gram/protein per kilogram of body weight. (HELMS, 2013)
In the case of strength athletes and bodybuilders who wish to grow their muscles beyond levels required for maintenance, there are still other guidelines. Studies suggest that the protein requirements to maintain nitrogen balance in these athletes ranges from 1.2-2.2 grams/protein of body weight to maintain elevated protein synthesis for greater amounts of muscle tissue and to repair muscle tissue as well. (Wilson, 2006)
To translate this into more relatable numbers, an average sedentary man needs approximately 63 grams of protein, while an elite Tour de France athlete needs 126 grams. (Gleeson, 2005) See the relationship with physical activity?
Most Americans get enough protein as it is in their diets, (PhysiciansCommitte, 2008) but you may be curious whether taking supplements can help you safely drop some extra weight. With that in mind, let’s focus on the pros and cons of taking glutamine and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) to promote muscle gain and reduce fat.
Glutamine is a naturally occurring, non-essential amino acid that builds proteins, helps in nitrogen transport to body tissues, as well as acid-based regulation and gluconeogenesis (generation of glucose from non-carbohydrate). Taking anywhere from 20-30 grams of glutamine seems to have no ill effects on adult humans, according to the research conducted on it by Gleeson, et. al.
Glutamine is highly utilized by white blood cells to provide energy and assist in cell proliferation. White blood cells cannot synthesize glutamine like the muscles do, so they depend on skeletal muscle glutamine synthesis and release into the bloodstream to be able to perform their metabolic jobs. This is why prolonged exercise has been associated with decreased intramuscular and plasma glutamine and it has been hypothesized that this decrease could impair immune function in endurance athletes (they may be more susceptible to a viral infection, for example).
It is important to notice that resting plasma concentrations of glutamine have been reported lower in overtrained (chronically fatigued) athletes compared to healthy, well-trained athletes. The majority of studies have found no beneficial effects of maintaining plasma glutamine levels nor does the evidence support that decreased levels of glutamine contribute to immune depression (Gleeson, 2008)
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a type of essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body. They can be obtained from whole food proteins, protein supplements, protein hydrolysates (purified protein sources like casein, with faster absorption) and free amino acids. During exercise, BCAAs are utilized and they must be replenished afterward through intentional consumption. Many people consume BCAA before exercise as fuel, but studies show that this supplementation is unnecessary; carbohydrate ingestion during exercise prevents BCAA oxidation. (Gleeson, 2005) Also, the majority of studies, using various exercise and treatment designs and different forms of administration of BCAA, have failed to find a performance-enhancing effect of these nutrients.
This means: don’t worry about taking BCAA before you exercise.
The connection between Glutamine and BCAA is that BCAAs are nitrogen donors for Glutamine synthesis and this may be why some athletes combine these two. Ingestion of BCAAs in the diet up to 450 milligrams per kilogram of body mass appears to cause no adverse effects in healthy adults according to the author. However, more research needs to be done on this topic.
In conclusion, unless you are an elite athlete, train very hard most days of the week, or have a condition that requires you to consume more protein, you will not need to incorporate these two supplements into your routine.
To gain muscle mass and reduce fat you must exercise combining cardio and weights and you must consume a balanced diet that promotes lean body mass.
However, if you are an athlete and are not able to get all the protein you need through your diet (meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, tofu, beans, etc), then you may benefit from taking some kind of protein supplement. Do your research, when you do supplement make sure you purchase high-quality products and read the ingredients and recommended dosages.
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But remember that more is not always better; consult with your physician or dietitian to better assess your personal needs.