Protein: what’s the best time to eat it?

In a recent post, I covered the issues of protein requirements but I also touched on the timing of consuming that protein. Spreading it out through the day, rather than the typical pattern of having a protein-heavy dinner, offers numerous health perks including weight control benefits. But here’s some surprising news: the order in which you consume various foods, especially the protein-rich ones, in a meal may also supply advantages for your blood sugar readings.

A small study of subjects with diabetes who were overweight or obese, published in the journal Diabetes Care, looked at the differences in blood sugar readings when eating a protein-rich choice (grilled chicken) and vegetables before having bread and juice compared to consuming the carb-rich options first. The results showed that eating the protein and vegetables first led to significantly lower blood sugar levels than having the bread and juice first.

The impact of these blood sugar readings may be more far-reaching than at first glance. A quick rise in your blood sugar can lead to dramatic drops soon after. Rollercoaster blood sugar readings are something you want to avoid. Having your blood sugar spike can promote insulin surges along with negative effects on your sense of well-being and even the ease of weight control. Slow rises in blood sugar readings yield release of less insulin and more stable blood sugar levels.

I have also seen this in my own nutrition counselling practice. On one occasion, I was puzzled by one client’s difficulties that seemed to mimic a breakfast lacking protein – mid-afternoon fatigue and sugar cravings. After probing more deeply, it turned out she was eating a leisurely breakfast while reading her morning newspaper. She started off with cereal, fruit and milk which took about 20 minutes or so – long enough to promote an insulin surge. She then ate a protein-rich selection like an egg or cheese. Because of her cravings, I suggested that she eat the protein choice first. And voila, the cravings and fatigue disappeared.

Another problem with the order of eating different foods is that of feeling too full after having a high fibre cereal. I’ve noticed that any clients forego the protein if they consume the cereal first. Again, suggesting they eat the protein first does the trick and helps to curb cravings later in the day.

As a result, I now ask clients about their meal time and order of eating. If you’re eating a mixed meal – both protein and carbs- you don’t need to concern yourself about it.

Spreading your protein out during the day not only helps to maintain more steady blood sugars but also to build and maintain muscle mass (last post). But as we’re accustomed to that heavy protein dinner, many people struggle with ideas as to how to boost protein consumption through the day.

Here are 6 ways to up your protein during the day. Be sure to include a high protein option at all meals and snacks. This doesn’t mean large amounts at one time – as in high protein eating patterns such as the Atkins diet.

• Forget only having most cereals and milk for breakfast – even high protein cereals. Go for an egg or two, an ounce or two of lower-fat cheese, lean meat or fish or plant-based options such as tofu, hemp hearts, nuts and seeds (check out my list in my protein post).

• Add nuts, seeds and hemp hearts to selections such as cereal and salads.

• Yogurt can be a terrific high protein snack but if you’re eating regular yogurt and it’s flavoured, you’re getting much less yogurt itself and therefore, less protein and more sugar. If you opt for Greek yogurt, read the label to ensure the protein content.

• At snack time, add some nuts or seeds alongside your fruit. If you’re opting for nut butters, again check labels for the best options.

• Go for pulses at meals and snacks. Munch on edamame or whip up a bean dip to enjoy with vegetable crudities. Top your salad with chick peas, stir some white beans (cannellini) into your pasta sauce or add some whole or pureed pulses to your soup.

• Individually wrapped cheese can be a portable choice if you’re headed to a restaurant with few protein options or where they’re pretty pricey. But again, read the label, some are called “cheese food”, meaning they’re not quite cheese and won’t measure up protein-wise. The same goes for cream cheese. Consider that 2 tablespoons of cream cheese provide one whole gram of protein for 100 calories while 1/2 cup of lower-fat cottage cheese supplies 13 grams of protein for its 90 calories.

You may have noticed, I didn’t include protein bars and protein powders in the above. Read my upcoming post on the topic to find out why.

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Categories: Tips and Tricks, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

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

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2 Comments on “Protein: what’s the best time to eat it?”

  1. Meredith
    November 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    This is a great article with lots of practical suggestions! I bet eating the protein/veg first can also help limit or remove portions of higher-sugar foods like the juices and starchy foods mentioned. Interested to hear your upcoming thoughts on protein powder.

    • November 23, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback, Meredith! I agree that eating in this way may help to limit high sugar options as fewer highs and lows in blood sugar readings can also impact sugar cravings as well. Check out the protein powder post as it’s now up.

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