Learn how to separate fact from fiction about the nutrient of the year.
Protein has become the latest must-have nutrients. In fact, more than half of U.S. adults trying to get more of it into their diets, according to the NPD Group.
To help us get more, food companies are pumping protein into everything—from breads and cereals to snack bars, milk and smoothies.
But before you start piling your shopping cart with protein-enhanced foods, here are five facts to consider.
1. You Don’t Eat Enough of It
While more than half of adults are trying to get more protein in their diets, some 71% say they don’t know how much protein they’re supposed to eat, according to the NPD group.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per kilogram body weight (about 60 grams protein for a 150-lb adults), but that’s the minimum amount needed for sedentary adults to prevent a deficiency not the amount considered an optimal for maintaining a lean body mass.
A more optimal goal amount is 1 ½ times as much as the RDA or 1.2 grams protein per kilogram body weight or about .5 grams per pound. (If you weigh 200 pounds, that’s 100 grams pro per day.) The American College of Sports Medicine recommends endurance athletes need 1.2-1.4 grams/kg (.54-/63 grams/pound) and bodybuilders need 1.6-1.7 grams protein/kg body weight (.72-.77 grams/pound). National nutrition surveillance data from NHANES show that men eat around 100 grams per day and women eat 68 grams per day, so it’s likely that you already eat enough protein.
2. As Long as You Reach Your Daily Requirement, When You Eat It Doesn’t Matter
A typical U.S. diet has three times as much protein at dinner than breakfast, according to NHANES data. Women eat about 10 grams at breakfast (men, 15g); breakfast, 18 grams at lunch (men, 27g) and 30 grams for dinner (45g for men).
A total daily protein goal isn’t as important as how protein is divided into meals. Eating excess protein at one time is essentially wasted in terms of muscle protein synthesis, as the body can only utilize the essential amino acids present in about 30-40 grams of protein at one time. And, breakfasts with 20-30 grams of protein help curb appetite and cravings during the day to help keep calories in check. (Here’s a week’s worth of protein-packed breakfasts.)
“Our research shows that eating about 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner is more beneficial for muscle protein synthesis than eating larger amounts at lunch and dinner,” explains Douglas Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., a protein researcher and professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, TX. (Athletes with very high energy needs may need an additional 30-grams before bedtime or during the day.)
A recent study by Paddon-Jones and other researchers and reported in the Journal of Nutrition found a 25% increase in muscle protein synthesis when protein is divided into three, 30-gram doses at breakfast, lunch and dinner compared to eating the same protein divided as follows: 11 grams protein at breakfast, 16 grams at lunch and 63 grams at dinner. A 30-gram portion of meat, fish or poultry is about 4 ounces, or about the size of an iPhone.
3. You Need It Immediately Post-Exercise to Maximize the “Anabolic Window of Opportunity”
Despite what your trainer says, there isn’t a 30-minute, post-exercise window of opportunity to get amino acids to your muscles. In fact, new research shows that the immediacy around protein intake post-exercise for strength athletes is grossly exaggerated, and is more hype to sell recovery products than anything.
For strength, several studies show that the body’s muscle-building capabilities are enhanced for at least 24 hours after hard resistance training, so as long as you train hard and get enough quality protein in your diet, you don’t need to worry about drinking your recovery beverage as soon as you’ve completed your last rep.
According to Paddon-Jones, “Muscle protein synthesis doesn’t even turn on for about 30-40 minutes after exercise, so as long as you take in about 30 grams of high-quality protein within a few hours post-exercise, you’ll get all the muscle-building benefits of the essential amino acids.” (Unlike strength athletes, endurance athletes will benefit from rapid rehydration and consumption of carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen stores.)
A 30-gram portion of meat, fish or poultry is about 4 ounces or about the size of an iPhone. A cup of nonfat, plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese also provide nearly 30 grams of protein. An egg and most 1-oz servings of nuts contain about 6 grams of protein. (Athletes with high energy needs may need an additional 30-gram protein serving before bedtime or during the day.)
4. Protein Supplements Are Best to Gain Muscle Mass
Based on numerous studies, the American College of Sports Medicine says protein requirements can be met with food and protein supplements are unnecessary. The key is getting enough of the 9 essential amino acids, with particular attention to leucine, the branch chain amino acid that directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Luecine is found in ample amounts in dairy foods, poultry, fish, beef, beans and eggs. Use this list of leucine-rich foods to guide your choices. If you eat 30 grams of protein from a variety of foods you should get about 2-3 grams of leucine, which has been shown to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis when adequate protein is consumed. Vegetarians may need supplemental protein to get enough leucine in their diets.
5. Protein Builds Muscle Mass
Many strength athletes believe that mo’ protein equals mo’ muscle. Not so. Protein alone does next to nothing to gain strength: A progressive strength-training regimen is necessary to make muscle adapt to the stimuli (read: get stronger). Muscles adapt quickly to exercise demands, which is why you need to target different muscles and progressively increase load or resistance to gain size and strength.
Madonna M. Mamerow, Joni A. Mettler, Kirk L. English, et al. Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults1–3 J Nutr. 2014 Jan 29. [Epub ahead of print]