EAA vs BCAA: What’s the Difference?

If you’re trying to improve your muscle growth and recover faster from a workout, you’ve likely come across the terms EAA and BCAA (see also ‘Know The Benefits of BCAAs‘)  (see also ‘Know The Benefits of BCAAs‘)  (see also ‘Know The Benefits of BCAAs‘) . But since they share several similar qualities, it can be challenging to know the difference between them and whether you should supplement with one or both.


We’ll compare and contrast EAA vs BCAA so that you can get a better feel of how these amino acids operate. And while many gym-goers prefer to boost their EAA or BCAA intake via supplements, we’ll also share vegan sources where you can obtain them naturally.

What Is EAA?

EEA stands for Essential Amino Acids. Humans need 20 amino acids to maintain optimal health, with us being able to produce 11 of them on our own. However, we rely on food or supplements to acquire the remaining nine EAAs.


These nine EAAs that humans can’t produce on their own include:


  • Leucine
  • Valine
  • Isoleucine 
  • Histidine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan


So, if people can’t produce EAA on their own, what foods can they get them from? 


You can get EAA via complete protein sources, meaning that they contain all nine of these amino acids. Non-vegan foods are the most common source of complete protein, including items like beef, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy.


However, before you despair, know that there are some vegan-friendly complete protein sources. We’ll cover that shortly.


In contrast, you can also get EAAs from incomplete protein. That means you’d need to eat multiple different foods containing various types of EAAs to get a complete EAA profile. As a result, most meat-eaters and many vegans who eat a well-rounded diet are able to get sufficient EAAs without needing to add supplements to their diet.


For now, it’s important to recognize that EAA is crucial for optimal health. They support protein synthesis, repair damaged tissues, and help absorb nutrients. There’s also evidence supporting that EAA can reduce muscle loss, improve mood, and help people recover faster post-surgery.

How to Use Them

Many people choose to consume EAAs through diet alone. But if you frequent the gym, it can be hard to consume enough of these essential amino acids to support the muscle building and fast recovery you’re likely after. 


For this reason, many gym-goers turn to EAA supplements. According to a study on the oral administration of EAA before resistance training workouts, there’s a noticeable delay in muscle fatigue. 


That said, there likely isn’t a massive difference if you’re an everyday exerciser as long as you take an EAA supplement shortly before, during, or after a workout. The important part is to follow the instructions on whatever EAA supplement you take and choose a high-quality product. That way, you can feel confident that you’re getting a healthy source of amino acids.

Can They Come From Vegan Sources?

Yes, EAAs can come from vegan sources. For this reason, if you don’t take a vegan supplement containing EAAs, you should ensure that you consume plenty of the following EAA foods in your diet:


  • Soy
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat


Many other vegan foods contain some, but not all, EAAs. So, by eating a combination of nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains, and certain vegetables, you’ll set yourself up for getting all your EAAs in a natural and vegan-friendly way.

What Is BCAA?

BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids. They make up three out of nine of the EAAs and get their name because they have a branched molecular structure. The three types of amino acids that compose BCAAs include:


  • Leucine
  • Valine
  • Isoleucine 


Unlike the other EAAs, BCAAs are unique because they occur in muscles in the largest amounts. For this reason, they’re an essential source of muscle energy and of particular interest to bodybuilders and people practicing resistance training.


By consuming BCAAs around the time you exercise, you could benefit from muscle protein synthesis, reduced muscle degradation (particularly during cardiovascular workouts), and a reduced amount of lactic acid in your body. 


Lactic acid buildup can cause soreness. So, according to a study where participants took BCAA for eight days, the individuals experienced decreased soreness perceptions. Researchers still need to do more studies on this topic, but many athletes rely on BCAA as part of their supplement regime. 

How to Use Them

People can obtain BCAAs via complete foods, with the most common being meat, poultry, and fish. However, you can also take capsules or drink BCAA in a powdered form. Since BCAA supplements on their own have a bitter flavor, we encourage you to mix them into a smoothie or flavored drink if you choose the powdered version.


As with EAA, you’ll likely experience near-equal benefits by drinking BCAA shortly before, during, or after a workout. Endurance athletes also often take BCAA during a long training session or marathon, as it can help reduce fatigue and muscle tissue breakdown. 


While the recommended dose can vary according to your exercise regime and goals, a good rule of thumb is that you can calculate taking 91 milligrams of BCAA per pound of body weight.


Generally speaking, taking up to 20 grams of BCAA per day is safe without the risk of adverse health effects. 

Can They Come From Vegan Sources?

Yes, you can consume BCAA from vegan sources. Examples of foods that contain BCAA include:


  • Soy
  • Nuts
  • Legumes


You can also purchase vegan BCAA supplements. Doing so is ideal for people looking to improve their workout performance, given that it can sometimes be challenging for vegans to get up to 20 grams per day of BCAA from diet alone.


When comparing EAA vs BCAA, the following two sentences can help you understand how they’re similar: All BCAAs are EAAs. However, not all EAAs are BCAAs. 


The reason is what you saw above—EAAs contain nine amino acids, three of which are BCAAs. 


So, below is an overview of how EAAs and BCAAs are similar:


  • Your body can’t produce them on its own
  • They contain the amino acids leucine, valine, and isoleucine
  • You can obtain them both from specific vegan food sources (soy, quinoa, buckwheat)
  • Effective for taking before, during, and after a workout
  • Necessary for muscle building
  • They rely on non-essential amino acids for proper function


Although EAAs and BCAAs serve individual purposes (more on that shortly), the reality is you need a combination of these nine essential amino acids in conjunction with the other 11 amino acids your body naturally produces for your body to function properly.


However, since the body can’t synthesize EAA and BCAA on its own, it’s crucial to ensure you’re getting enough of these amino acids via food or supplements. 


Vegans are at a particularly high risk of being low on EAAs and BCAAs since they don’t eat eggs, fish, meat, or poultry. Nevertheless, people sticking with a strict plant-based diet can find complete protein (EAAs and BCAAs) in foods like soy, quinoa, and buckwheat. 


If you’re interested in learning about EAA and BCAA for improving your workout performance, you’ll find supplements that cater to both. BCAAs on their own won’t work well without EAAs. 


So, we recommend speaking with a trainer or nutritionist to determine whether you’re getting enough EAAs from your diet where a BCAA supplement will be effective. If not, you’re likely better off choosing an EAA supplement. In either case, they appear to be almost equally effective regardless if you take them shortly before, during, or after exercise.


Although EAAs and BCAAs rely on non-essential amino acids for optimal function in your body, the good news is that your body naturally produces these other non-essential amino acids, so you don’t have to worry about consuming them via food. 


However, your body can’t produce EAAs or BCAAs because it doesn’t have the metabolic pathways needed to create them. The good news is that even if you don’t eat vegan foods with complete proteins, you can still get EAAs and BCAAs from eating a combination of plant-based incomplete protein foods.


The most notable differences between BCAAs and EAAs include:


  • BCAAs primarily metabolize within the muscle
  • Other EAAs mainly break down within the liver
  • BCAAs enter the bloodstream faster
  • Not all EAAs fuel the muscles as efficiently 
  • BCAAs prevent fatigue and reduce soreness
  • EAAs target areas aside from muscle growth


Although all BCAAs are also EAAs, the fact that they bypass the liver by metabolizing within the muscle means they enter the bloodstream quicker. Therefore, they’re able to arrive at the muscles faster, breaking down into energy that your muscles can use during prolonged endurance exercise.


BCAAs are also more effective than other EAAs at supporting protein synthesis in the muscles and preventing protein breakdown.


The benefits of muscle building and retention are innumerable. People who are trying to lose weight benefit by building and retaining muscle because muscle burns more calories. For example, 10 pounds of fat burns 20 calories, whereas 10 pounds of muscle burns 50 calories.


Protein synthesis and the inhibition of protein breakdown that BCAAs offer is also vital for people trying to build muscle or maintain their muscles when doing cardiovascular endurance activities. 


Of the BCAAs, leucine is primarily known for protein synthesis and breakdown inhibition. So, some people choose to supplement specifically with this amino acid. Alternatively, you can take a BCAA supplement while eating foods high in leucine, such as:


  • Chicken
  • Almonds
  • Ground beef
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs


That said, it’s crucial to note that without the proper intake of EAAs, you won’t be able to harness the muscle-building and protein breakdown inhibition effects of BCAAs. So, even though BCAAs can theoretically play a “stronger” role for your muscles, you can’t achieve your goals without EAAs.

EAA vs BCAA for Body Function

When exploring the differences between EAA and BCAA, one of the most distinguishing factors is the different roles the nine essential amino acids play in your body. Below is a quick rundown of each. 


  • Leucine (BCAA & EAA): Muscle repair, protein synthesis, blood sugar control, energy from fats
  • Valine (BCAA & EAA): Muscle growth, energy from carbohydrates
  • Isoleucine (BCAA & EAA): Muscle metabolism, energy from fats and carbs, immune support
  • Histidine (EAA): Protects nerves, supports the immune system
  • Lysine (EAA): Produces protein and collagen, absorbs calcium, immune support
  • Methionine (EAA): Metabolizes energy 
  • Phenylalanine (EAA): Supports enzymes and neurotransmitters 
  • Threonine (EAA): Metabolizes fat, immune support, maintains structural tissue
  • Tryptophan (EAA): Produces serotonin and melatonin


This gives a better visual of why BCAAs stand out among the nine EAAs. If you’re looking for muscle growth or sustained endurance, you could notice increased performance by ensuring you get plenty of BCAA. That’s because BCAAs go directly to the muscle, and it’s assuming you’re also consuming enough EAAs.


BCAAs can prevent fatigue because of the energy-enhancing benefits of their amino acids without tryptophan, an EAA, nudging its way into the scene.


Since tryptophan produces serotonin, eating EAAs with tryptophan and without BCAA can cause you to become sleepy and relaxed. That’s the exact opposite of what people want when they work out.


For this reason, if you’re an athlete or planning on doing a long-distance endurance performance, it’s crucial to ensure you’re getting enough BCAA with any tryptophan you consume. The good news is that BCAA can counteract the impact of tryptophan by preventing this amino acid from reaching the brain.


Of course, tryptophan plays an essential role in the body. So, you can eat or supplement your way to this EAA to help yourself relax and rest after a big workout. 


When comparing EAA vs BCAA, you can have EAAs without BCAA, but you can’t have BCAA without EAA. If that still makes your head spin, the bottom line is this: You need all nine EAAs to have a healthy body, strong muscles, and increased endurance.

Since BCAAs are three of the nine EAAs, you’ll automatically consume them if you eat a supplement or food with all EAAs. 

As a vegan, it’s crucial to ensure you’re getting enough EEAs via supplements or food. Luckily, you don’t have to eat meat to do so—many plant-based foods contain some or all EAAs.

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Jason Hughes
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