Dietary protein is made up of amino acids, the subunits of which muscle proteins are made. Without enough amino acids, you won’t be able to build lean body mass. In fact, with an amino acid deficit, your body will enter a catabolic state where you lose muscle protein. Not getting enough protein has other consequences as well. You need protein:
. To build antibodies that protect you against illness
. To make enzymes that carry out reactions that keep you alive
. To make hormones
. To make brain chemicals that affect your mood
. To make clotting factors that keep you from bleeding to death
. To make proteins that regulate fluid balance
. As a component of collagen, the structural material found in many tissues in your body, including tendons, muscles, bones, and skin and is critical for support.
. As an energy source when carbohydrates are in short supply
In fact, proteins are a critical component of every cell in your body, so it’s important for more than muscle growth. Appropriately, protein comes from the word “proteos,” which means “the most important one.” It just shows how essential protein really is!
Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids
Some amino acids that makeup proteins are non-essential, meaning your body can make them and you don’t necessarily have to get them through diet. Other amino acids are essential and must come from food sources. Without these essential dietary amino acids, your body can’t adequately make the proteins it needs for health and survival.
Proteins in your body are in a constant state of flux. Old proteins are continuously being broken down into amino acids as new proteins are made. Because protein is constantly turning over, you need a steady supply of amino acids to serve as building blocks. Without them, your body goes into a catabolic state, an unhealthy situation where muscle protein breakdown takes place faster than muscle protein synthesis. That’s why you need to stay in “positive nitrogen balance” by taking in more than enough protein to compensate for protein breakdown.
If you exercise, especially if you do long periods of training, high-intensity exercise or resistance training, you turn over protein faster than an inactive person. Although a sedentary person might only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, the amount currently recommended, you might need as much as twice that amount depending upon how long and intensely you train.
You already know how important it so to supply your muscles with the amino acids they need for repair and recovery after a workout. According to some research, there’s a window period where consuming protein after exercise enhances muscle protein synthesis and helps you build the stronger, more defined physique you want. Getting a small amount of protein at every meal not only keeps you satiated but it ensures your muscles have plenty of amino acids to tap into so you stay in positive nitrogen balance – but what about when you go to bed at night?
Consuming a Protein Snack at Bedtime
Dieticians often advise against eating too close to bedtime to avoid weight gain, but research doesn’t necessarily support the idea that eating at bedtime triggers weight gain. The problem with eating at night is the type of things most people eat. How many eat a bowl of broccoli before turning in? More commonly late-night snackers reach for ice cream, cookies, and other sugary treats – definitely not foods conducive to weight control and good health. These foods trigger a rapid rise in blood sugar and a more sustained insulin release, which sets the stage for fat storage.
What about protein? Remember how important it is to keep your muscles supplied with amino acids, especially if you’re resistance training to build lean body mass. If you stop eating after dinner, your muscles will be deprived of amino acids for up to 12 hours. Can a pre-bedtime protein snack help you gain more muscle?
What does research show about eating protein at night? A study published in the Journal of Nutrition assigned 44 men to two groups. Both underwent a 12-week resistance training program. One group consumed a high-protein snack consisting of 28 grams of protein, 15 grams of carbs and a tiny amount of fat prior to bedtime. The other group consumed a placebo with no protein or calories.
The results? The group who trained AND ate a protein snack before bedtime gained more strength and quadriceps muscle size relative to the group who didn’t eat a pre-bedtime protein snack. Yet another 2012 study showed that when participants consumed protein before going to sleep, it effectively increased muscle protein synthesis by 22%.
Bedtime Protein Snacks
It’s best to get most of your protein from food sources, but a high-protein smoothie with casein protein isn’t a bad choice. Why? Casein is slowly digested and the amino acids are gradually released into your bloodstream throughout the night. As a result, you get continued amino acid delivery to your muscles. Milk is about 80% casein and 20% whey, so a dairy-based smoothie is a good choice for a pre-bedtime snack. Another advantage to drinking a dairy-based smoothie in the evening – it may help you sleep better since milk is high in tryptophan.
Another option: Eat a bowl of cottage cheese. A cup of cottage cheese has an impressive amount of protein – 25 grams and much of it is in the form of casein. Cottage cheese is an under-utilized source of muscle-building protein.
The Bottom Line
A pre-bedtime, protein-rich snack could give you a muscle-building advantage when you combine it with resistance training. Stick with 20 to 30 grams of protein and limit the number of carbs you consume with it.
Today’s Dietitian. June 2014. Vol. 16 No. 6 P. 22.
“Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults” Journal of Nutrition, 2014; DOI: 10.3945/%u200Bjn.113.185280.
Gatorade Sports Science Institute. “SSE #117: PROTEIN INGESTION PRIOR TO SLEEP: POTENTIAL FOR OPTIMIZING POST-EXERCISE RECOVERY”
Runner’s World. “Protein Before Breakfast Builds Muscle”
J Nutr. 2015 Jun;145(6):1178-84. doi: 10.3945/jn.114.208371. Epub 2015 Apr 29.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Aug;44(8):1560-9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31824cc363.
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