When to eat protein - is “protein timing” a mythconception?

Ask an athlete, coach, or fellow gym-goer the question “when is the best time to consume protein”, and you will likely get many different answers.

“An hour before.” “All through the workout.” “No more than two hours later.”

That may be because of some commonly held beliefs about how the human body uses protein, but it is also likely that the answers vary because the health and fitness goals of each person vary. These goals could include:
•    Muscle building/weight gain
•    Weight loss/fat loss)
•    Preventing/delaying muscle loss
•    Improving exercise performance and/or recovery

Each of these would seem to require different amounts and methods of protein intake – but as we will see, they are not really all that different.

Muscle Building/weight gain

Picture of various protein sourcesThe “anabolic window” is the relatively short period after a workout when muscles are highly receptive to protein synthesis. This period can last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes depending on what study you cite, but the general advice tends to be very similar: If you want to increase lean muscle mass, the usual advice says that it is critical protein be consumed (probably as a shake) during that window.

But according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming protein any time up to two hours after your workout is ideal for building muscle mass. And a meta-analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine showed that the window lasts from four to six hours.The study found that protein synthesis peaks within that time frame, but that the body will be sensitized to protein for a full 24 hours. 

For the average person, it would be true that sufficient protein intake and resistance exercise are more important than the actual timing of the protein intake. Although, for those who choose to do their training in a fasted state (i.e., before breakfast) may benefit from protein soon after a workout, as it will have been some time since protein was last consumed. This may also apply to an afternoon workout, if dinner will not be eaten for several more hours.

Losing weight/fat loss

Protein is one of the most effective macronutrients for helping with weight/fat loss. Eating a high-protein diet can help raise your metabolism, which will help burn fat. Protein takes more energy to digest than other macronutrients, so your body may need to call on more of its stored energy reserves (meaning fat) to process higher amounts of protein.

Protein also lowers your appetite by reducing levels of the hormone ghrelin, which is what causes you to feel hungry, and raises levels of several appetite-reducing hormones. Therefore, having a high-protein food between meals may help you to eat fewer calories (especially those from non-protein sources) later in the day because you will not feel as hungry.

A 2014 study found that of 20 women, those who ate a high-protein yogurt snack in the afternoon ate 100 fewer calories at dinner, compared to those having chocolate or crackers for the afternoon snack. All three snack foods provided the same number of calories.

Preventing Muscle Loss

Research repeatedly confirms that the loss muscle mass due to age (sarcopenia) is linked to a higher injury risk and shorterOlder man on jungle gym bars overall lifespan. On average, we lose around 3–8% of our muscle mass each decade after age 30. To help prevent or minimize this muscle loss, it is recommended that aging persons space their protein intake evenly across the day. This would entail eating about 25–30 grams of protein with each meal. For example, 4-5 ounces of chicken or beef, or a large scoop of whey protein powder. 

Note that combining adequate protein intake with resistance/strength training can reduce rates of muscle loss even more effectively.

Improving exercise performance and/or recovery 

Athletes often wonder when they should take protein for optimized performance and recovery. For endurance training, or HIIT/Crossfit-type workouts lasting 15+ minutes, combining protein with a source of carbs during and after exercise may improve performance and recovery and reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

A 2008 study found that 11 male cyclists taking a protein and carb beverage during a training session consisting of four rides to exhaustion reported reduced muscle soreness and improved recovery when compared to a placebo.

As with strength training, endurance workouts can also stimulate protein synthesis. In a Ball State study, protein synthesis increased 50 to 60 percent during the several hours immediately after an hour-long ride.

For strength/resistance training, protein can help by elevating performance and recovery, regardless of accompanying carb intake. 

But isn’t too much protein bad for you?

blender bottleThis too is a common myth. Some say that a protein intake that is too high can damage the liver and kidneys, and that it may also cause osteoporosis (low bone mass), a common cause of broken bones in the elderly. These assertions are often exaggerated and not backed by conclusive evidence. 
The evidence for problems resulting from a protein intake that is too low is not inconclusive. Many more studies show you can safely eat high amounts of protein and not run a risk of harmful side effects.

Keep in mind that “high” levels of protein generally mean “higher than what you are currently eating”. Most adults will benefit from eating 0.6–0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.

Some might delay protein intake, eating mostly carbs earlier in the day and then adding protein later. Americans tend to eat around three times as much protein for dinner than for breakfast. This makes consuming more protein at breakfast an ideal way to evenly distribute protein intake. Equally dividing up your protein intake across several meals can increase protein synthesis by up to 25 percent. Plan on having about .25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per meal to optimize protein synthesis. Eating more will not hurt, but it may exceed the amount your body can use in that period.
Keep in mind that the total amount of daily protein intake is equally as important as the timing of that intake. Do not freak out if you forget to drink your protein shake (or preferably, protein/carb/electrolyte shake) immediately after a workout. If it is consumed within a reasonable time period after you finish, it’ll all equal out.

Useful “Rules for Protein”.
Rule #1: Timing is Less Important that the Total Amount
Rule #2: Consume Protein at Least Every 5 to 6 Hours
Rule #3: Break a Fast with a Protein Shake
Rule #4: Eat Enough at Every Meal – Space It Out

And above all – enjoy it! Protein shakes are quick and easy, but they should not be a main source of protein. It is tough to sit down and bond with your family or friends over blender bottle full of whey powder. A grass-fed steak, baked chicken wings, or a plate of sushi are much more enjoyable and healthy sources of complete proteins. 

Happy eating!

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Published on March 11, 2021.