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Food-First Fueling: When to Consume Protein for Maximum Muscle Growth

As the result of many studies and years of data, it is universally accepted that without sufficient protein, we won’t be able to gain the anabolic improvements from resistance training. However, how exactly to time protein intake throughout the day to get the most out of each workout is subject to more debate.

The Data

Prepped meal with chicken, egg, nuts, and greens.Unfortunately, the data on protein timing for optimizing hypertrophy – or muscle growth – is conflicting. Limited sample sizes, small effect size, short study duration, and difficulty tightly controlling study parameters make it hard to effectively create conclusive nutrition guidelines. If you find yourself pulling your hair out each time you hear nutrition information that counters what you thought you knew, you’re not alone!

In the past few years, one of the most common protein-related misconceptions is that it is impossible to absorb more than 20-25 grams of protein at once due to oversaturation of receptors. This leads people to believe that for optimal muscle growth, they must dose protein continuously through the day. Originally, this information came from a 2013 study where participants experienced greater muscle growth when fed 20 grams of protein four times per day (Areta et al., 2013). However, both groups had much lower protein intake than is currently recommended, and the researchers utilized whey, a fast-absorbing protein source that quickly saturates receptors in the intestinal wall.

However, when eating slower absorbing protein sources, such as those that come in a varied diet of meats, eggs, beans, dairy, and plant-based protein, the 25-gram limit does not seem to apply (Morton et al., 2018). This misconception can lead people to under consume protein at meals in favor of eating small amounts every 2-3 hours throughout the day.

The Recommendation

Experts in sports nutrition and exercise physiology are mostly in agreement that individuals should aim to consume about 1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram per day of protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis (Morton et al., 2018; Phillips et al., 2020). For a 150-pound person, this would equate to about 109-150 grams of protein per day (Morton et al., 2018; Phillips et al., 2020).

When thinking about how to consume protein for optimal muscle tissue maintenance and growth, amount (rather than timing) is likely the most important component. With this in mind, make sure your intake is between 1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight and consume it in whatever way is easiest to maintain consistently.

When it comes to timing, snacking between meals can be a helpful way to add extra protein and stabilize your hunger levels. But if you prefer not to eat between meals, evenly distributing protein between three meals rather than spacing it into shorter increments should not negatively impact muscle protein synthesis (Mamerow et al., 2014). Just don’t try to consume all your daily protein needs in one meal, as that would limit muscle protein synthesis!

Another important and often overlooked component of protein-timing is ensuring you get a good dose of protein with breakfast. Aside from the obvious benefit of reducing hunger throughout the morning and into lunch (when mindless eating tends to increase), muscle protein synthesis decreases overnight. Until you consume about three grams of leucine—available in about 30 grams of high quality protein—your body will remain in a catabolic state, which means it would be breaking down muscle protein rather than building and repairing (Mamerow et al., 2014). Typically, people eat about three times the amount of protein at dinner than they do at breakfast (Mamerow et al., 2014). However, shifting this distribution and front-loading protein intake in the morning can stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a greater extent. Mamerow et al. (2014) found that muscle protein synthesis was about 25 percent greater when protein was distributed evenly in each meal, rather than concentrated at lunch and dinner.

Takeaway

As athletes, schedules can be rigid, and time is finite. When thinking through a practical nutrition plan, zoom out and ask yourself, “What structure and eating schedule will lend itself to maximum consistency and intake?” If you’re not a big breakfast eater, you could try plugging in 12-16 ounces of chocolate milk or 6 ounces of Greek yogurt. Or if you’re too busy to eat lunch, make sure to add a dose of protein following your workout to make up for the deficit. Where protein is concerned, a sufficient amount is key, in whatever distribution works best for your lifestyle.

References

Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W. D., Broad, E. M., Jeacocke, N. A., Moore, D. R., Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S. M., Hawley, J. A., & Coffey, V. G. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319–2331. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897

Mamerow, M. M., Mettler, J. A., English, K. L., Casperson, S. L., Arentson-Lantz, E., Sheffield-Moore, M., Layman, D. K., & Paddon-Jones, D. (2014). Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults123. The Journal of Nutrition, 144(6), 876–880. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.113.185280

Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Aragon, A. A., Devries, M. C., Banfield, L., Krieger, J. W., & Phillips, S. M. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(6), 376–384. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608

Phillips, S. M., Paddon-Jones, D., & Layman, D. K. (2020). Optimizing Adult Protein Intake During Catabolic Health Conditions. Advances in Nutrition, 11(4), S1058–S1069. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmaa047

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