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Surviving the Paleodiet by using BCAA

Jade Teta ND, CSCS

The Paleodiet is the ultimate fat loss diet, yet so many people have an extremely difficult time sticking to it. The reason, may be branched chain amino acids (BCAA). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the paleodiet it is a dietary philosophy based on the diet that humans evolved on for millions of years and is the diet that our genes and metabolism are most aligned with.

Up until about 10,000 years ago humans lived on lean animal protein, vegetables, nuts and seeds, tubers, and a few fruits when they were in season. Grain (wheat, corn, rice, etc) and dairy (milk and cheese), and legumes (beans) were not part of the diet. The technology did not exist to consume these foods. The agricultural revolution occurred 10,000 years ago and up until that time humans did not possess the tools and knowledge to eat grain and process legumes/beans. Likewise dairy did not exist as it would have been very difficult to milk a wild animal. Humans did not start to domesticate and milk animals until roughly 5,000 years ago. Legumes/beans were not edible without significant processing (soaking in water or fermenting) and again, humans did not develop the skill to process them except in the last 10,000 years.

The paleodiet approach is different than any other dietary system because it is not based on bias, flawed studies, or some charismatic diet guru. It is based on the largest human trial ever conducted, human evolution. There have been reams of research published on this approach to nutrition, most of which is free at the website www.thepaleodiet.com. This is the website of Dr. Loren Cordain the foremost expert on this style of eating.

Two very important concepts come out of this approach to eating both of which are 100% validated by science (please see www.thepaleodiet.com to see the vast amount of published studies by Dr. Loren Cordain on this diet).

1) Humans were more healthy in the past than they are now. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived long healthy lives and did not suffer from the chronic disease of today. This is a fact most people are ignorant of, mistaking the fact that our ancestors had high infant death rates with not living long and healthy lives. If a population has a very high death rate in infancy the calculation for average life expectancy will be artificially reduced. High infant mortality rates along with the hazards of living in close proximity to wild animals that view you as food are the reasons early man’s average life expectancy was close to 30 years old. However, those who lived past infancy and avoided accidental death were exceedingly healthy. Infection, injuries, and other types of accidental deaths (i.e., being gored by a woolly mammoth) were a significant factor as well, but chronic disease for those who did live long was not an issue. If you are skeptical on this point, there is plenty of research supporting this claim.

2) This health has been shown to be a consequence of the diet these people ate which was rich in lean, clean wild animals. Had an extraordinary amount of plant material and no grain or dairy at all. There is no healthier diet on the planet than the paleodiet. A recent study published in the journal Diabetologia compared this dietary approach to the much heralded Mediterranean diet. The paleodiet intervention was shown to surpass the Mediterranean diet in its health giving properties (Diabetologia. 2007;50:1795-1807).

How it works clinically?

In my clinical practice I have never seen any dietary or nutritional program even compare to the paleodiet in terms of fat loss results. However, I also have never seen a dietary practice more difficult to stick to. For most people, the complete avoidance of grain and dairy is a serious issue. The cravings for starchy foods and dairy can be insatiable to many. However, there is a supplement that can make this approach much easier to stick to, branched chain amino acids (BCAA) supplements. BCAA supplements work on several levels. They decrease cravings and hunger signals at the level of the brain, they spare muscle loss, and they provide key elements in glucose metabolism through the ability to modulate both glutamine and alanine, amino acids key in the production of glucose. There is much research on BCAA supplementation. As with most research the studies show mixed results in efficacy. However, the research is slowly moving toward a consensus on their benefit, especially the BCAA leucine. Clinically, I have seen supplementation with BCAA be a key element in the sustainability of lower carbohydrate diets like the paleodiet. One of the interesting things about BCAA is that they can stimulate insulin without help from carbohydrate sources. This may be a benefit since insulin production in the presence of key components of muscle building and maintenance would shift resources of the body to both maintain and perhaps build muscle. This is a difficult process when carbs are depleted in the diet because of the often elevated stress hormone response. For me, BCAA supplementation is the missing link in lower carb diets and amplify the fat burning effect while severely blunting and even reversing any loss in muscle. Most importantly, I have seen sometimes profound shifts in energy and cravings which often keep clients from sustaining a paleodiet over the long run

How I supplement.

To get the best effects from BCAA supplementation the dosing needs to be rather high. This dosing schedule comes from my review of studies on rats and humans as well as my own clinical experience. I dose BCAA (a 2:1:1 or 3:1:1 formula of leaucine, isoleucine and valine) at a dose of 5g for the first 100 pounds and 5g for each additional 50 pounds. If the individual is highly active with weight training or long duration cardio another 5g for the first 100 pounds along with 5-10g (5g pre-workout and/or 5g post-workout) is sometimes used. So I weigh 225 @ 15% bodyfat…..that is 10g for first 100 pounds & another 10g for the next 100 pounds for a total of 20g (for ease of calculation I usually just round down unless I am within 10 pounds of the next 50 pound increment). And then depending on my training status, carb intake and/or cravings I may add 5 to 10 more grams in and around training time.

The range is based on level of activity and the degree of cravings, hunger, and energy levels. The higher and more intense the activity level and the more pronounced hunger, cravings, or lows in energy on a paleo-type diet, the higher the dose should be. If you have never used BCAA please realize to get the upper doses, you will do much better with a powder. Also understand that the powder is not very soluble in water and has an extremely bitter taste. I usually dose my BCAA in 4 oz grape juice before and after a workout for those focusing on muscle building, and after a workout and before bed for those interested in fat loss.

If you prefer an OTC BCAA powder that mixes well and tastes fine, try Labrada Nutrition’s BCAA powder. Here is the dose: Use 1 scoop (5-10g) for the first 100 pounds of body weight. For each additional 50 pounds add another scoop. So, a 250 pound make would dose 5g for the first 100 pounds and then another 15g for the other 150 pounds. The 5g doses are taken morning, pre and post workout and at night.

** my new favorite BCAA= or another favorite MRM Reload BCAA + G Watermelon (no artificial sweeteners in this one). Read label as the dose is for 5g of the BCAA is 2 heaping scoops.

A pilot study on a similar regime

There is one study, a pilot study, on high dose BCAA and omega 3 with promising results (AGE 2008;30:201–208). This research was a double-blind placebo controlled trial. Subjects were given high dose (12g/day BCAA) or Low dose (6g/day BCAA) along with high dose DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, or olive oil (12g/day) or low dose DHA or olive oil (6g/day). The placebo was a fiber supplement. In this study, the results showed a trend towards significance with higher dose BCAA and higher dose DHA despite a very short study period of two weeks. I have attached two tables from the studies so you can view both the mechanisms of the nutrients used and the results of the studies. I have also included some other references to studies and research on BCAA. For a more science-based and referenced article on BCAA check out Keoni’s & my article published in Townsend Letter. The Science of BCAA.

1. Diabetes 2007; 56:1647–1654 (Leucine decreases food intake and fights obesity through multiple mechanisms)
2. Am. J. Physiol. Endocrinol. Metab. 291, E621–E630. (Increases leptin)

3. Cell Metabolism 2007;6:181–194. (Review on BCAA Molecular Effects)

4. Neurochem Res (2008) 33:279–284 (regulation of brain cravings and energy)