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Perfecting Your Protein Intake

Protein comes from the Greek “Of primary importance”.

Protein helps you to recover from your training, it preserves lean tissue when dieting, helps you grow more muscle when bulking, and has the highest effect on satiety of all the macronutrients.

With this information you can see that the amount, quality and timing of your protein intake are all key factors to maximize your muscle building potential. 

Eating protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Muscle growth can only occur if MPS exceeds muscle protein breakdown (MPB).

MPS is arguably the most important physiological factor in when it comes to building muscle. It is the driving force to adaptations brought about by training. MPS is the rebuilding of muscle fibres damaged by training. During weight training muscles experience tiny micro-trauma, blood flow to the area increases in response to this to deliver the necessary components for repair through protein synthesis. As a result, the repaired muscle is bigger and stronger than it was before.

Interestingly research indicates that there is an amount of protein that will maximally stimulate MPS and that eating more doesn’t have any additional benefit.

(Dammit! That explains why I didn’t build a tonne of muscle back when I was eating 2 chicken breasts and a pack of pastrami in one sitting!)

So, we have established that protein is key to your ability to grow. However, it is not as simple as saying more = better. Instead aim to ensure MPS maxed out. After that having more offers no benefit and just fills you up and would be better spent on carbohydrates and fats.

How much protein should you consume?

To build muscle anything in the range of 1.6-2.2g/KG/LBM is sufficient to stimulate MPS over the course of the day. In fact, a recent study concluded there was no benefit to exceeding 1.65g/KG.

One for training nutrition geeks out there! Pic courtesy of quick meme.com

I generally recommend 2g/Kg/BW. Why?

This is easy to remember, easy to calculate and comfortably covers your needs. From a practical standpoint I have also found it is a quantity that satisfies most peoples appetite and eating preferences.

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Protein Timing:

When it comes to timing there are two elements to consider. Meal frequency/spread and the timing of specific nutrients. The former simply addresses how many times per day you eat. While the latter is largely focused on the timing of your nutrition relative to your training.

Maximising daily dietary-induced muscle protein synthesis (MPS) should be your goal when it comes to using protein to yield the greatest muscle building results.

So, it makes sense that you want to spend the entire day stuffing yourself with protein at every available opportunity to max out MPS, right?. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Multiple studies have shown that a serving of 25-40g of protein is sufficient to maximise MPS. This range of 25-40g is relatively broad and has some nuances (see protein quality/leucine for a more detailed insight).

Just giving ballpark numbers means risking missing out on optimising the process to you. As such, I prefer to give numbers relative to your weight, much like the percentage based rate of gain and the total daily protein recommendation.

To give a more specific recommendation I suggest you aim for 04.g/kg/bw per meal. So, if you weigh 65kg then that is 26g, while an 80kg guy would have 32g of protein per meal.

Pic courtesy of jerrybrainum.com

The current literature indicates that consuming a mixed whole food meal causes MPS to last roughly three hours, peaking at 45-90 minutes (protein shakes/amino acids supplements tend to only last about two hours.) MPS then begins to tail off.

Research indicates that these peaks and troughs in MPS are key to maximal muscle growth. Trying to keep levels chronically elevated (constantly sipping on an EAA drink anyone?!) actually produce a refractory response.

(Refractory = resistant to a process or stimulus)

In other words, MPS actually decreases despite the presence of amino acids and that once MPS is maximally stimulated following a protein containing meal, further stimulation will not occur by simply ingesting more protein. A constant drip feed of protein is not the answer then.

Obviously, you want to avoid this refractory response. So what is the optimum distribution of protein feedings to spike MPS but, allow the required drop offs to occur to avoid becoming resistant?

Science indicates 4 to 6 servings with 3-4 hours between each as your best bet. This is because the apparent ‘refractory nature’ of MPS, suggests that eating meals spaced every 3-4 hours optimises MPS within a 24-hour period.”

So, you know you need 25-40g of protein per meal to maximise MPS. You also know that you shouldn’t  just keep poor stuffing protein into your face. The question then, is how should this be spread through the day. Well a simple approach is to divide your total protein requirements by the above range of meals. If we pick the middle ground and go with 32.5g (halfway between 25 and 40) as a convenient figure then a 75kg guy will have 5 meals a day to meet his daily requirements (75×2=150, 150/32.5 =4.62 rounded up to 5 meals).

This approach is actually well supported by the available data which shows that 3-4 hours would theoretically be the minimum time that should pass between meals if you wish to maximise MPS in the subsequent meal. No need to set an alarm reminding you to eat every 2 hours then!

On that basis eating a protein containing meal every 3.5 hours appears a good compromise. You would also be well served to eat within an hour of waking and with reasonable proximity to your bed time to minimise the amount of time without stimulating MPS overnight. This would look something like the following eating schedule…

6.30am Breakfast

10am Meal 2

1.30pm Lunch

5pm Meal 4

8.30pm Dinner

Alternatively, you can base you eating schedule based on the 0.4g/KG/BW recommendation.

This is also a pretty simple template for ideal protein consumption. For our earlier 75kg example.

  • We know he needs 150g of protein a day
  • We know he needs to hit about 30g per serving to stimulate MPS (75×0.4=30)
  • We know that this should be spaced into 4-6 servings.

So some simple maths to calculate total meals…

Total target protein / per meal protein = number of meals

150 / 30 = 5 meals

Different method same result!

We have established that spacing your protein relatively evenly throughout the day is best for MPS, with an interval of approximately 3.5hours between meals appearing ideal. The question on protein timing then moves on to when and how much you need in relation to your training session.

Pic courtesy of ignore limits.com
Nutrient Timing & The Anabolic Window

The ‘anabolic window’ has had gym goers chugging down protein shakes within seconds of finishing  training for years now. Is this required? Short answer = No. Long answer = it depends…

…It depends on your eating before and after training.

If you consume a ‘threshold’ dose (enough to max out MPS) of protein pre- and -post training, separated by no more than five hours, then drinking a shake is unnecesarry. For example, if you eat a meal that maximally stimulated MPS an hour before training, then train for one hour, shower and travel home in 30-60mins, you then have up to two hours to consume another 25-40g of protein after training. This means slamming a post workout shake within seconds of training is not required. If, however, you ate your last meal several hours before beginning training then grabbing a shake asap is probably a good idea.

Protein Quality:

Protein quality refers to how well the essential amino acid profile of a protein matches the requirements of the body, with the digestibility of the protein and bioavailability of the amino acids also playing a role.

In layman’s terms protein quality refers to how well your body will use a given protein source.

MPS stimulated is largely dependent upon the protein content of a meal. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids but, 9 of them cannot be made by the body. These are known as the Essential Amino Acids (EAAs). It appears that consuming sufficient quantities of EAAs is essential to your muscle building efforts. As such, a protein sources quality can largely be measured by its EAA content.

It appears that Leucine, an EAA and one of the three branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), plays a major role in kickstarting MPS. A threshold amount of leucine of 2-3 g is thought to be required to maximally stimulate MPS. Much like daily total protein, more leucine per meal isn’t better. Intakes as high as 8g per meal have been tested and do not appear to offer any further effect on MPS. To achieve the optimal threshold of 2-3g of leucine per meal translates to 25-40g of leucine-rich protein sources (e.g. whey, eggs, meat).

Pic Courtesy of Jamieoliver.com

Given the relatively high daily total protein recommendations in this guide, protein quality is not likely a concern for meat eaters. If you are vegan/vegetarian then it is more of a concern. You would be best served to fortify meals with essential amino acids (EAAs). It would be particularly important to reach the stated leucine threshold so a leucine supplement may be useful.

Right, that’s the detail. Here is the stuff you need to remember…

The Key Takeaways:
  1. Consume about 2g per KG/BW
  2. Eat 4 to 6 meals a day
  3. Space meals 3-4 hours apart
  4. Eat 0.4g/KG of protein per meal
  5. Ensure there is at least 2-3g of Leucine per serving
  6. A post workout protein shake is optional and only required if you haven’t eaten for several hours before training or can’t eat for several hours after training.
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