Most of us could name a few must-haves when it comes to living the good life—a roof over your head, friends and family, maybe a cup of joe in the morning? And your body’s “essentials” are equally vital: water, oxygen, vitamins and minerals, and of course (especially if you’re a bodybuilder) good food. In nutrition-speak, the essential nutrients are those the body absolutely must obtain from a well-balanced diet because it can’t manufacture them itself. Although it may feel like it when dieting, carbohydrates are, technically speaking, not essential. Physiologically though, carbohydrates can certainly help with getting the job done in the weight room, but many of you reading this know it’s entirely possible to maintain or even gain strength on a low-carb diet if you cycle or time your carb intake appropriately.
Some food components truly are essential, though. Essential fatty acids and essential amino acids (EFAs and EAAs, respectively) are required by the body for normal functioning, just like vitamins and minerals, but also make special contributions when it comes to building muscle mass. The EFAs and EAAs (and/or their metabolites) create a vital “go” signal for turning on protein anabolism. As far as the nutritional team roster for muscle growth goes, the EFAs and EAAs are both the captains and the MVPs.
FATS THAT MAKE YOU GROW
Of the two EFAs, the typical Western diet is rich in linoleic acid (an omega-6) and, conversely, lacking in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3). It’s ALA that gives rise to those well-known, healthy omega-3s known as EPA and DHA, found in fatty fish like salmon and fish oil supplements. EPA and DHA are actually the main metabolic players in the omega-3 lineage, not ALA. You can consume more ALA, e.g., in the form of flax oil, to boost EPA and DHA levels, but conversion is unfortunately quite poor (10%, at best). This is especially true for men with a diet already high in omega-6 linoleic acid. DHA is actually so vital for basic bodily functioning but is so poorly converted from dietary ALA that, practically speaking, DHA is itself an EFA.
So, what happens if you supplement liberally with DHA- and EPA-rich fish oil? Simply put, you get a lot more bang for your anabolic buck when scarfing down those protein-rich meals. In young and old alike, just two months of daily fish oil supplementation (4g/day with 1.86g EPA and 1.5g DHA) boosted muscle-protein synthesis rate by more than 50% following a controlled lab “meal” (an infusion of insulin and amino acids). Read that again: Protein synthesis was increased 50% or more! This is because the “molecular machinery” of protein synthesis (mTOR and p70s6 kinase enzymes) is turned on in a basic way from enriching your muscles with EPA and DHA. How much this adds to mass-building stimulus of weight training isn’t known yet, but, if you’re like me, it seems a safe bet to supplement with fish oil if you aren’t already, given its beneficial cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory effects.
NOT ALL AMINO ACIDS ARE CREATED EQUAL . When it comes to the essential amino acids, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are best known to the bodybuilding world, and with good reason: BCAAs make up nearly one-sixth of skeletal muscle protein (and more than one-third of the dietary EAAs). Exercise breaks down BCAAs, but luckily, a BCAA supplement reverses this. Even better, BCAA supplementation enhances fat oxidation and reduces post-exercise muscle soreness and damage.
Of the BCAAs, leucine is considered the top dog. This amino acid triggers muscle protein synthesis by turning on mTOR (like the EFAs) and other mediators of protein synthesis in both rodent and human muscle. Acting alone, leucine is both anti-catabolic and anabolic and will bring about many of the same metabolic effects of administering all the BCAAs together.
The other (non-BCAA) essential amino acids all have demonstrable anabolic actions as well. The EAAs acting in unison are actually so potent that only a measly six grams is used in research studies to max out protein synthesis after hitting the weights. So the other BCAAs have anti-catabolic, and possibly anabolic, activity, and the rest of the EAAs are also anabolic to muscle tissue, but the nonessential aminos are not overtly anabolic in nature. Taking in enough whole protein is also necessary to become a bigger bodybuilder— but you can’t just go around eating EAAs in lieu of whole protein sources. However, the EAAs are more than just necessary components of muscle tissue. These essential nutrients are actually a primary growth signal in and of themselves and are, thus, indispensable for maintaining or gaining new muscle mass.
Scott W. Stevenson, Ph.D., is a national-level competitive bodybuilder, exercise physiologist, and licensed acupuncturist. He can be reached via truenutrition.com and scottstevensonphd.com.