Protein- How Much and When?

February 28, 2017


I'm super excited to introduce my first guest blog post here at Pulse Nutrition YK! I've written about carbohydrate timing and I wanted to do a post on protein timing but I realized my friend Kirsten Oilund RD had done such an amazing job already on this topic that there was no point in re-inventing the wheel!


Before we get started, let me take a minute to tell you a bit about Kirsten! She and I actually went to nutrition school together back in the day but I didn't get to know her well until we worked together as dietitians years later. Kirsten is an amazing dietitian who is hella smart (I swear this girl remembers every research paper she's ever read) and she is an avid outdoor enthusiast who is always running, skiing, or hiking when she isn't cooking one of her amazing meals! Kirsten now lives in the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Alberta where she runs her practice, Jasper Nutrition Counselling, to help people nourish their bodies to help them move when she isn't out moving her own body! Who better to explain protein intake and timing? Take it away Kirsten!


 The fabulous Kirsten Oilund RD of Jasper Nutrition Counselling is here today to talk about protein intake and timing!

Bear with me for some background before we dive in...


Proteins are molecules that play many critical roles in our bodies. They are needed for the structure, function, and regulation of all our body tissues and organs – WOW, talk about responsibility! 

Each individual protein is made up of a long chain of building blocks called amino acids, of which there are 20 different kinds. Our body can make some of these amino acids, but there are about 8 amino acids that are considered ‘essential’, meaning that we need to get them from the proteins (foods) that we eat.

Image source: Bio-Social Methods Collaborative


How much protein do you need? 


The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for a typical adult is set at 0.8g/kg/d (for a 75kg adult, that is equivalent to 60g protein), however many nutrition experts agree that 0.8g/kg/d may be underestimating our needs as new techniques emerge to quantify protein requirements. 

Kathleen here: if you aren't athlete, new research shows that around 1.0-1.2g/kg (or around 75-90g of protein for that same 75kg adult) is beneficial for various metabolic functions and intakes of 1.0-1.5g/kg (75-112g protein for that 75kg person) have benefits for healthy aging.


That being said, athletes are a different breed altogether. The American College of Sports Medicine, along with Dietitians of Canada and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommend that endurance- or resistance-trained athletes consume significantly more protein in the range of 1.2-2.0g/kg/d to support enhanced muscle repair and growth (for a 75kg athlete, that is equivalent to 90-150g protein). Even higher intakes of daily protein may be required in the short term during intense training.


Traditional protein recommendations for athletes focused on the total daily intake, however new research has shown that the type of protein as well as the timing/spread of protein intake throughout the day is just as important. More about that below…


Types/Sources of Protein {~g protein/100g food}:


•    red meat {29}
•    poultry {31}
•    fish/seafood {25}
•    eggs {12}
•    dairy foods (like milk, yogourt, cheese, and kefir) {4-24}
•    soy-based foods (like tofu, tempeh, edamame, dried soybeans, and miso) {12-39}
•    nuts & seeds (like almonds, cashews, chia and pumpkins seeds) {15-25}
•    legumes (like chickpeas, beans, and lentils) {8}
•    whole grains (like quinoa, millet and whole-grain bread) {4-11}


For more lists about protein, you can check out here, here, and here. Or search by single food by using Canadian Nutrient File.



What about timing?

 Spoiler alert - SPREAD. IT. OUT. 


The American College of Sports Medicine, along with Dietitians of Canada and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends meeting your daily protein goals by consuming ~0.3g/kg body weight after key exercise sessions and every 3 to 5 hours over multiple meals/snacks. For a 75kg athlete, that would be ~23g of protein 4-6 times daily, to reach a daily target of 90-150g.


These smaller, more frequent doses of protein are more effective than eating larger amounts of protein less often. 


Why should I spread out my protein intake? 


In order to increase muscle mass and enhance recovery & adaptation to training, distributing your protein intake throughout the day may be just as important as meeting your total daily protein goal.

Muscle growth is only stimulated when there is an adequate supply of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). So spreading out protein intake throughout the day results in more availability of amino acids to your muscles. 


Also, there is no storage form of protein in the body (like there is for carbohydrate and fat), so if you consume more than you need at any given time for muscle repair and growth, it will simply be oxidized for energy or converted to fat.


Research shows that the optimal amount of protein to eat at one time is only ~20-25g (and this estimate may be even lower for lighter athletes). This coincides quite well with the recommendation above to aim for ~0.3g protein/kg body weight per eating event. 


How should I spread out my protein intake? 


Let's take a look at two sample meal plans for Jane (a 75kg athlete). They both have the same amount of total daily protein of ~110g or 1.5g/kg but have drastically different distributions/spacing:



The meal plan on the right demonstrates Jane eating 14-28g of protein at five separate times throughout the day. By doing so, she is providing her muscles with frequent doses of protein that they can use for muscle building and repair. Little of it is wasted as energy to burn or to store as fat. 


In contrast, the meal plan on the right demonstrates Jane meeting her overall protein goal for the day (110g), but by eating two larger doses of protein (44-7g) and 3 smaller doses (4-10g). After those smaller doses of protein at breakfast and snacks, Jane is not able to maximize her muscle protein synthesis because she doesn't have enough building blocks to do so. To make matters worse, the protein she eats at lunch and supper is partially wasted after her muscles take the 20-25g that they need at that time. 


By making a few small portion size changes and moving a few foods around throughout the day, Jane can optimize her body's ability to use the protein she eats. Take a few minutes to compare the two meal plans above. 


Training effects:


First and foremost training is key for muscle protein synthesis. Eating protein simply provides the building remember that you've got to do the work too! 


Note that for 24-48 hours after strength/resistance training there is an increase in the body's capacity to build muscle protein. And chronic endurance training enables the body to oxidize less amino acids (protein) for energy so that more is available to the muscles for building and repair. 


Recovery specifics:


To most efficiently refuel after exercise, and to maximize muscle synthesis, aim to consume 0.3g/kg protein (~23g for a 75kg athlete) within 30-60 minutes.


This window of timing is most important for athletes who have a shorter time to recover before their next bout of training, and who want to optimize muscle gains. If you have 24 hours to recover, the timing is less important. Your body will eventually's pretty smart. 


So what is 20-25g of protein?


3 eggs; 1 cup greek yogourt; 3 cups of milk; 1 cup cottage cheese; ~3 oz of meat/fish; 1.25-2 cups cooked beans/lentils; 1 cup edamame beans or tofu; 3/4 cup nuts/seeds; 2.5-3 cups quinoa; ~1 scoop of protein powder (based on scoop size).



Now, one point I want to stress is that you can't just eat protein to recover. YOU NEED CARBOHYDRATES TOO.

  • Carbohydrates reduce muscle protein breakdown

  • Amino acids (from protein foods) increase muscle protein synthesis


In other words, co-ingestion of protein AND carbohydrate during the recovery period results in more muscle building than eating protein on it's own. In fact the recommended ratio of carbohydrate to protein is 3:1 to 4:1 in the recovery period. 


An example of a 3:1 recovery snack is 1 cup of vanilla greek yogourt, 1 cup mixed berries and half a banana.


(Kathleen here again- if you want more information on carbs before, during, and after training you can check out my posts on the subject here and here! To check out Kirsten's original series on protein you can check out here, here, and here!)



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