Protein is the macronutrient most bodybuilders are concerned about. Even if you’re not planning on entering a bodybuilding or fitness contest, you need protein to build new muscle tissue. Although the optimal amount of protein to maximize muscle growth hasn’t been determined, most experts believe active people need more than the amount recommended for sedentary people, 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Depending upon the intensity of your workouts, you need 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein daily, especially if you’re trying to build lean body mass.
Does it really matter WHEN you get your protein as long as you’re getting enough or do you need to eat protein at every meal to maximize protein synthesis? According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, eating protein at every meal is the way to go. In this study, researchers asked adults to eat one of two diets. Both diets contained 90 grams of protein, but they differed in how much protein the participants ate at each meal. One diet consisted of 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while the other was a structured diet of 10 grams of protein at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch and a hefty 65 grams at the evening meal. In each case, the majority of the protein was animal-based.
In this study, researchers used muscle biopsy and blood tests to determine how each diet impacted muscle protein synthesis. The results? Over a 24-hour period, muscle protein synthesis was 25% greater in participants who ate equal amounts of protein at each meal. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to start the morning with a low-protein breakfast, if they eat breakfast at all, and skew most of their protein intake towards the end of the day – not a good strategy for building lean body mass or for metabolic health.
This study again brings to the forefront the issue of protein timing. Does it matter WHEN you consume your protein? This study suggests that it does.
Other Reasons to Eat Protein at Every Meal
Even if your goal isn’t to build lean body mass, evidence suggests that you should space your protein out so you’re getting a portion of your total intake at every meal. Start the day with 30 grams of protein at breakfast. The benefit? Not only do you create a metabolic environment that favors protein synthesis, assuming you’re lifting weights, you get the satiety benefits that protein offers. No other macronutrient helps with appetite control as well as protein – and that can help you lose weight. One study showed women who consumed double the recommended amount of protein (1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight) lost more total weight while conserving lean body mass than those who took in the recommended 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Eat Protein at Every Meal: Start with Breakfast
If you think you don’t have time for a high-protein breakfast, think again. It only takes 90 seconds to cook two eggs in a microwave. Here’s how. Crack two eggs and place them in a ceramic coffee mug. Add a dab of milk or non-dairy milk alternative to make your microwave eggs creamier. Microwave for 45 seconds. When you take them out, you should see them starting to solidify. Stir again and nuke for another 45 seconds. Voila! Protein-rich eggs to go.
It’s easier to get protein at lunch and dinner when you’re not as rushed, but don’t think only in terms of animal protein. Plant-based protein sources such as quinoa, tempeh, nuts, beans, lentils, and tofu combine protein with another dietary component most people don’t get enough of – fiber.
Eat Protein at Every Meal: After-Workout Protein
Another time when protein works in your favor is after a workout. Although not all research concurs, some studies suggest that getting 15 to 30 grams of protein, along with 0.3 to 0.4 grams of carbohydrates per pound after a workout speeds up recovery and enhances muscle protein synthesis. Consuming protein/carbs within 30 minutes of a workout becomes even more important with age due to a phenomenon called “anabolic resistance,” where muscles become less sensitive to insulin and take up the amino acids from protein less readily due to aging.
One reason why you need protein after a workout is because one particular amino acid, leucine, plays an important role in ramping up protein synthesis. Leucine activates the well-known m-TOR pathway that helps you build lean body mass. Leucine is the primary anabolic trigger that turns on muscle protein synthesis, exactly what you want after a resistance training workout.
In one study, participants who supplemented with protein/carbohydrates PLUS supplemental leucine after a resistance training workout had greater protein synthesis and less protein breakdown than those who supplemented with protein/carbohydrates without leucine. In terms of amino acids, leucine is in a class by itself due to its ability to activate the mTOR pathway for muscle protein synthesis.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to get enough protein but spread it out across the day and eat protein at every meal. Once you’ve determined how much protein you need each day, depending upon your weight and the amount of training you do, divide the amount up between your meals and your post-workout snack so you’re getting roughly equal amounts each time you eat. Don’t “save it up” for the evening meal, as many people do.
Just as importantly, start the day with a protein-rich breakfast. By doing so, you’ll have a more stable blood sugar and energy supply to get you through your day and will feel more satiated.
Science Daily. “Full serving of protein at each meal helps one achieve maximum muscle health” May 20, 2014.
“Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults” Journal of Nutrition, 2014; DOI: 10.3945/%u200Bjn.113.185280.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Dec 14;9(1):54. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-54.
Exerc Sport Sci Rev 2013; 41:169-73.
Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2008, 294:E392-E400.
J Nutr 2006, 136:533S-537S.
Bodybuilding.com. “The Anabolic Trigger”
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