Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are found in many healthy protein-rich foods, including organic grass-fed beef, wild Alaskan salmon, pastured egg yolks, raw grass-fed cheese, quinoa, pumpkin seeds and nuts.
When your body breaks down or digests proteins, amino acids are what's left behind. There are nine essential amino acids that are not made by your body and therefore must be obtained from your diet.
BCAAs are made up of three amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine, which are considered branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) because they have a branched molecular structure.
While most amino acids are broken down in your liver, BCAAs are broken down primarily in your muscle and believed to help improve exercise performance as well as reduce the breakdown of muscle.
Legumes are rich in protein and they’re also quite high in leucine. For example, 1 cup of raw soybeans provides about 6 grams, white and kidney beans each contain 3.7 grams per cup and 1 cup of lentils provides 3.4 grams.
Soy-based foods are also good leucine sources -- for example, 1 cup of tempeh, a fermented soy food, provides 2.4 grams. Other good sources include dried spirulina, a seaweed product, with almost 3 grams in 1/2 cup, and peanuts, which have 1.4 grams of leucine in 1/2 cup.
Eating a diet high in leucine is a healthy choice because it provides your body with a steady supply of this essential amino acid, which you aren't able to store in your body for any length of time.
A review paper published in the May 2010 issue of "Nutrition Reviews" summarises the benefits of leucine, highlighting its ability to stimulate insulin production, helping control blood sugar.
It also indicated that increasing dietary leucine may help control obesity and help keep blood cholesterol in a healthy range. Over time, leucine may also have positive effects on liver and muscle cells.
Isoleucine is an amino acid that is best known for its ability to increase endurance and help heal and repair muscle tissue and encourage clotting at the site of injury.
This amino acid is especially important for serious athletes and body builders as its primary function in the body is to boost energy and help the body recover from strenuous physical activity.
Isoleucine is an essential acid, and can’t be manufactured in the body and must be obtained through dietary sources.
Good sources of isoleucine include high-protein foods, such as nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, fish, lentils and peas. People that exercise a lot or that have a low-protein diet should consider supplementation.
Valine works with the other two BCAAs, isoleucine and leucine, to promote normal growth, repair tissues, regulate blood sugar, and provide the body with energy. Valine helps stimulate the central nervous system, and is needed for proper mental functioning.
Valine helps prevent the breakdown of muscle by supplying the muscles with extra glucose for energy production during intense physical activity. Valine also helps remove potentially toxic excess nitrogen from the liver, and is able to transport nitrogen to other tissues in the body as needed.
Valine also can’t be manufactured in the body and must be obtained through dietary sources. Natural sources of valine include meats, dairy products, mushrooms, peanuts, and soy protein.