Why a Protein-Packed Dinner Isn’t Enough

To maximise muscle growth and repair, spread your protein throughout the day.

Last year, I wrote about some interesting new research arguing that runners and other endurance athletes need more protein than previously thought.

It turns out that protein, in addition to its role in building new muscle, is essential for repairing the damage induced by hard workouts, and also provides five to 10 per cent of the energy you burn during long runs. That led researchers to suggest a revised goal of 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for endurance athletes, more than double the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 g/kg/day.

But figuring out how much protein you need is only part of the challenge. You also need to consider when you consume it, because recent research has suggested that most of us can make use of about only 20 to 25 grams of protein at once. Eat much more than that at one sitting, and you’ll simply burn it for energy, since your body can’t save it for later.

That’s a problem, because typical Western dietary patterns, according to one estimate I’ve seen, is to get suboptimally small doses of 10 to 15 grams at breakfast and lunch, followed by a monster dose of 65 grams at dinner. It would be better, researchers believe, to get four or five moderate doses in that 20- to 25-gram sweet spot, spaced throughout the day (i.e., including snacks or even, as I’ve suggested before, a before-bed dose).

Of course, athletes tend to be more conscientious about their diet than the average person. So how well do trained athletes do at spreading out their protein intake? That was one of the questions explored by a new study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, by lead author Jenna Gillen of McMaster University (she’s since moved on to the University of Michigan), working with a group of scientists in the Netherlands led by Luc van Loon of Maastricht University.

The study followed more than 500 Dutch athletes, who each completed six web-based 24-hour food reports over the course of several weeks. The athletes were all either international or top-tier national level, and about half of them were endurance athletes. (Surprisingly, the athletes in strength sports, team sports, and endurance sports had nearly identical protein intakes when expressed per unit of body weight: around 1.5 grams per kilogram per day.)

On average, the athletes took in 19 grams of protein at breakfast, 25 grams at lunch, and 38 grams at dinner, with another ~19 grams spread out in snacks. On the surface, this isn’t terrible – it’s certainly a more even distribution that the general pattern I cited above.

Still, there’s room for improvement. Analysis showed that 58 per cent of athletes took in less than 20 grams at breakfast, and 36 per cent missed that target at lunch too. And very few athletes were having any snacks with the optimal level of protein.

So what does 20 grams of protein look like? Well, a cup of milk has 8 grams, and a large egg has 6 grams, so a breakfast of two eggs and a glass of milk fits the bill. Half a can of tuna with two slices of bread also gets you just over 20 grams. Half a cup of almonds gets you 12 grams, and you can add another 10 grams with a 170g container of yoghurt.

I’ve been trying to follow this advice for a couple of years now, but I’m a long way from consistently hitting the goals. My breakfasts and snacks, in particular, seldom hit the target.

Of course, not everyone needs to be absolutely maximising their rates of muscle protein synthesis at all hours of the day. But as I get older, I’m realising that even keeping the muscle I’ve got right now will be a non-trivial challenge – so anything I can do to make that easier, like shifting the balance of when I eat protein, is worth keeping in mind.


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