BCAA's vs Whey Protein: Which is better and what's the difference?

Outside of creatine, BCAA’s and Whey Protein are arguably the most talked about, consumed, and effective supplements on the market, especially in the bodybuilding and fitness industries, and for obvious reasons.

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    Because the primary intention of bodybuilding and resistance training is to build muscle and improve one’s physique, it makes sense that BCAAs and whey protein powder would be atop the list.

    Not only do both aid in muscle growth and repair, but they also improve recovery, reduce fatigue, and increase physical performance, among other benefits.

    While both supplements offer similar benefits, not to mention whey protein typically contains a sufficient amount of BCAAs, each has its place with respect to when to take it. Moreover, if you were forced to choose between BCAAs and whey protein powder, it might be a difficult decision for some.

    Although both branched-chain amino acids and protein can be consumed in sufficient quantities through whole foods, it makes sense why someone would opt to consume them in supplement form.

    Not only is it easier and more convenient, but it’s also typically more absorbable, and it helps those who are unable to reach optimal quantities of amino acids and/or protein.

    With that being said, the value of both BCAA powder and whey protein powder is undeniable. Though similar in many regards, each boasts its own unique differences. Which is better? That question is still up for debate.

    In what follows, we’ll be discussing what amino acids are, what BCAAs are, and what whey protein powder is. Further, we’ll be diving into the key differences of both, as well as answering some of the most common, frequently asked questions surrounding this longstanding debate.

    So, without further ado, let’s jump right into it!

    What are Amino Acids?

    In short, amino acids are chemical compounds comprising nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. With a total of 20 amino acids, nine being essential and the rest being non-essential, amino acids are vitally important in many respects.

    Below is a list of the nine essential amino acids:

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

    When you consider the role that protein plays in the body, amino acids play just as important of a role in protein. In other words, they’re the building blocks of protein.

    Broadly speaking, amino acids are not only broken down into essential and non-essential but are also divided in the supplement industry as BCAAs and EAAs.

    As mentioned, amino acids play several key roles in bodily function, promoting both muscular, neurological, and hormonal health.

    What are BCAAs?

    BCAA’s, or branched-chain amino acids, are a chemical compound comprising leucine, isoleucine, and valine; three of the nine essential amino acids. Most commonly known as a powdered supplement, BCAAs have been shown to be highly effective for fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders alike.

    Because they’re essential nutrients found in protein-rich foods, many question the necessity of supplementing with it in powdered form. However, if you’re an overly active individual or you simply find it difficult to reach your daily protein intake goals, supplementing is a great alternative, especially when it comes to protein and amino acids.

    Both protein and amino acids, and BCAAs in particular, play an important role in promoting muscle growth, improving metabolism, boosting recovery, and reducing fatigue, among other things.

    As mentioned, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine and the three essential amino acids that make up what is formerly known as branched-chain amino acids. Leucine, in particular, is most commonly known to be the main contributor when it comes to muscle growth and the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis, hence providing the greatest physical benefit.

    Just be sure to supplement BCAAs in conjunction with a proper and consistent resistance training regimen. Otherwise, you’re just not getting the most out of it.

    Muscle building aside, BCAA’s have been shown in recent studies to be much more than just a supplement for bodybuilders.

    Following is a summary of the broad spectrum of benefits one may experience from proper BCAA supplementation:

    • Promotion of Muscle Growth and Muscle Tissue Repair
    • Reduction of Soreness
    • An improvement of Focus and Overall Brain Function
    • Associated with Improvements of Other Health Conditions

    BCAA’s can be supplementing independently or in conjunction with whey protein powder. If you’re in the search for the greatest convenience, you’ll be happy to know that most quality whey protein supplements are packed with its own BCAA profile.

    What is Whey Protein Powder?

    Whey protein is known as a complete protein because of its complete amino acid profile, containing all nine essential amino acids, not forgetting about the aforementioned BCAAs.

    Protein is a necessary macronutrient both for one’s general health and functionality, and for developing muscle, building strength, and promoting recovery. Whey protein just happens to be the most common and effective protein supplement source on the market!

    Whether you’re a regular Joe or Jane, or you’re an elite athlete, protein is crucial for your health and performance. Of course, the more active you are, the more protein you’re likely to need, not only for muscle tissue repair but for stimulating muscle protein synthesis among other reasons.

    So, what is whey protein? Simply put, whey protein is a protein combining several isolates and is derived from cows, and more particularly, is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process, funny enough.

    There are three types of whey protein powder: isolate, concentrate and hydrolysate.

    Each boasts its own unique benefits. The difference lies with the way each is processed, inherently resulting in a different nutrient profile and consistency, among other slight differences.

    You may be wondering why whey protein is considered the highest quality protein source when it comes to supplements. In large part, it’s because of its amino acid profile; an essential factor when it comes to absorption of key nutrients important for one’s health, physical performance, aesthetic results, and more.

    Following is a summary of the broad spectrum of benefits one may experience from consistent whey protein powder supplementation:

    • Increases Return on Investment During Resistance Training
    • Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis
    • Increases Muscle Mass
    • Builds Strength
    • Promotes Muscle Tissue Repair and Recovery
    • May Support Weight Loss & Suppress Hunger
    • Reduced Soreness and Stiffness
    • May Aid in a Reduction in Mid-Workout Fatigue
    • Acts as a Great Meal Replacement or Snack!

    To digress, consuming protein, whether from whole foods or supplement powder, is imperative to one’s health and fitness goals.

    Differences Between BCAAs and Whey Protein

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the main difference between BCAAs and whey protein, and truly the only main difference aside from their origins, textures, tastes, and price, is their amino acid profile.

    While BCAAs comprise leucine, isoleucine, and valine (three essential amino acids), whey protein comprises 25% of its contents with BCAAs while also boasting the other six essential amino acids as well. This makes whey protein a complete protein source.

    While it doesn’t hurt, besides maybe the wallet, taking whey protein and BCAAs won’t elicit any additional benefit or result. As such, the superior choice, in this case, goes to whey protein by a landslide.

    Whey protein also contains a substantial amount of calories in comparison to that of BCAAs. In fact, most BCAA supplements that you’ll see on the shelves will state that its calorie-free (though they actually happen to contain just under 5 calories per gram)! This can be a benefit to those looking to increase their caloric intake and a detriment to others looking to cut down.

    With that said, protein is a necessary nutrient no matter if you’re trying to gain weight or lose weight. In fact, protein has appetite-suppressing mechanisms so calories aside, it may actually aid in weight loss too!

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    In this section, we’ll be answering the most frequently asked questions surrounding branched-chain amino acid supplementation and whey protein powder supplementation.

    While most of the questions tend to revolve around usage, dosage, safety, and advantages/disadvantages, you may come across a question or two that may be of benefit for you to know!

    With that said, let’s answer the most common questions surrounding this topic.

    Do You Need BCAAs if You Consume Protein?

    No matter what whey protein product you choose, 25% of its contents contain BCAAs. With that said, the simple answer is no, if you consume whey protein daily, you don’t need to be consuming BCAAs independently.

    Taking it one step further, if you’re consuming an adequate amount of protein from your diet, it’s unnecessary and largely ineffective to supplement with a whey protein or BCAA product.

    With that said, in some cases, BCAAs and Whey Protein can complement each other. To digress, at worst, it doesn’t hurt to consume both simultaneously.

    When Should You Consume Whey Protein and/or BCAAs?

    Like most sports supplements, BCAAs and Protein can be taken at the consumer’s greatest convenience. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter when you take it, but that you simply take it, and on a regular basis.

    With that said, if you’re pinching pennies, protein is arguably of the most benefit as a post-workout shake. In contrast, BCAAs are likely optimal either right before a workout, intra-workout, or immediately after a workout.

    Lastly, recent preliminary research has suggested some positive correlation to consuming these supplements before bed to take advantage of your boosted GH levels. This, however, needs to be researched further before any validity or conclusiveness is suggested.

    Does Supplementing with Whey Protein or BCAAs Break the Fast?

    So, the short answer is yes.

    Firstly, whey protein powder typically contains anywhere from 120-160 calories per scoop. This is most certainly enough to kick you out of a fasted state, so much so that it’s not even worth discussing further.

    BCAAs, however, are a little more debatable. While some say that BCAAs can still be consumed while in a fasted state, the truth is that if you’re trying to remain in a truly fasted state, BCAAs shouldn’t be consumed. Why?

    Because the FDA doesn’t regulate the supplement industry, companies and brands are able to get away with white label lies. Though you’ll see a BCAA product typically read that it’s calorie-free, it does, in fact, contain calories. In fact, per gram, BCAAs contain approximately 4.75 calories. While it may seem minimal, it does have the potential to break the fast.

    If I’m Lactose-Intolerant, are BCAAs the Better Alternative to Whey?

    BCAAs are great for muscle growth and repair as previously discussed. However, they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids required for fully triggering muscle protein synthesis. While BCAAs would be better than nothing, you’re better off searching for a better complete protein source that happens to be lactose-free, or simply increasing your protein intake via whole foods. 

    What’s Better, BCAAs or Whey Protein?

    Whey protein is arguably always the better option over BCAAs. Why? Because, as mentioned, whey protein contains a sufficient amount of BCAAs; 25% of its contents to be exact. Not only that but whey protein is considered a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids. BCAAs, on the other hand, only contain three essential amino acids.

    So, what’s better? To me, there’s no argument: whey protein.

    Are BCAAs Worth It?

    This is a loaded question and involves some scenario examples…

    Firstly, if you’re already taking whey protein, it would only hurt your wallet to begin supplementing with branched-chain amino acids.

    However, if for whatever reason you have a need to supplement with BCAAs independently, whether you’re allergic to whey protein or what have you, BCAAs can be a great investment.

    With that said, if you’re able to choose, choose whey protein every day of the week.

    Wrapping Up

    Both whey protein and BCAAs have their place in one’s regimen, both boosting their own unique benefits in particular circumstances.

    With that said, in the majority of cases, whey protein is the superior choice. Because of its primary difference of containing all nine essential amino acids to BCAAs three, it makes whey protein a complete protein source, a much more beneficial tool for general health, muscle building, repair, soreness reduction, among other benefits.

    For those who are lactose-intolerant or allergic, however, BCAA takes the cake for the superior option. Otherwise, it’s whey all the way (pun intended)!

    Finally, while this has largely been a discussion of the benefits of both amino acids and protein, it’s important to understand that supplementing with either is not a magic pill. Instead, they’re only effective when taken consistently in conjunction with a proper diet, consistent and effective exercise regimen, and other healthy habits.

    At the end of the day, supplements are just that, a means of supplementing something that you can’t otherwise get from diet. Nevertheless, both BCAAs and Whey protein are highly beneficial in their own right and should be considered a welcomed addition depending on your goals and objectives.

    About The Author

    Michael Collins

    Michael Collins

    Michael is a gym enthusiast with experience that spans more than 20 years. He started his exhilarating journey of keeping fit in his late teens, and over the years, he has immensely grown to become a resourceful gem in matters of fitness.

    He has been writing for many years, focusing on answering all the questions you may have on nutrition, muscle building and fitness. Keeping fit and staying healthy is his main passion, and this is evidenced in the articles he writes in a simple and understandable language out of intensive reading and real-life experiences.