The best time of day to eat protein

Protein is hot.  While sugar and fat have had their reputations tarnished at various times – look at  sugar right  now – protein’s star is on the rise.  You can tell just by looking at food packages   trumpeting their protein content or added protein.  Protein bars, protein drinks and even added protein cereals are all brisk sellers.

But what happened to real food – those that are rich in protein naturally?

Somehow when research on a nutrient or substance makes headlines, all too often, people  think of  supplements or fortified foods.  There are a huge number of protein-rich options but not all are created equal.  Some offer a bonanza of other nutrients in the package such as cold water fish and its omega-3s or calcium  and magnesium and other assorted goodies in dairy products or the fibre and phytonutrients in legumes.  Others still supply some potentially negative effects if excess portions are consumed.  Red meat and its link to colon cancer are an example.

And what about how we traditionally eat our protein-rich options – skimpy through the day and then a heavy portion at night?  Is there a cost as a result of this routine?

A new study from University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, recently published online in the Journal of Nutrition,  looked at the issue of protein timing and muscle synthesis.  The researchers compared the difference in muscle synthesis in subjects using two different protein distribution patterns but with the same total protein intake of 90 grams through the entire day.

One of the diets contained 30 grams of protein at each meal, while the other contained 10 grams at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch and 65 grams at dinner. Lean beef was the primary nutrient-dense source of protein for each daily menu.  Using blood samples and thigh muscle biopsies, the researchers then determined the subjects’ muscle protein synthesis rates over a 24-hour period.

The results?

When subjects  consumed the evenly distributed protein meals, their 24-hour muscle protein synthesis was  a whopping 25 percent greater than subjects who ate  a typically  the skewed protein distribution pattern.

Now this may not seem like a big deal at all but when you consider that ageing is very much about losing your lean body mass or muscle  over the years, it certainly important research.  And this process begins around  the age of 30 when you can start to lose about 1 % of your muscle mass per year.   Taking steps to slow this process is key to maintaining vitality as you age.

Look at small changes you can make at breakfast and lunch to boost your protein.  If you’re a cereal eater at breakfast, add some lower-fat cheese, a scoop of cottage cheese or an egg along with some nuts and milk or yogurt.  At lunch, if your sandwich fillings are skimpy, add some edamame, kidney beans or chick peas and/or  nuts to a salad and have some yogurt or milk alongside.  Or if salad greens alone are your midday meal of choice, it’s time to balance out your selections.

Then don’t forget about redesigning your dinnerplate  so you’ll have less protein at dinner.

While you look for more protein options, don’t fall for products that simply don’t measure up., a website that offers much wisdom on what’s on supermarket shelves,  provided a great example in their post on entitled “Cheerios Protein Cereal – Sugary Hype, Not Much More”.

Their math gleaned from the nutrition facts on the labels shows that the new Cheerios protein offering is laden with sugar – in fact,  17 grams of sugar per serving. That’s more than 4 teaspoons compared to the original  Cheerios with just 1 gram of sugar (1/4 tsp).

Up next: more protein perks

What’s  your protein pattern like? Are you in need of an overhaul? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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