Proper protein timing is an important part of your health and fitness regime. If you fail to consume enough protein at the right times throughout the day then you may make smaller performance gains than expected. Also you risk overtraining as you may not be giving your body the fuel to repair, rebuild and replenish muscles after exercise.
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. Although fat and carbohydrates are also required for muscle function, it is the protein that builds muscle tissue. However, protein is not stored effectively in the human body, so if it is not used it is expelled as waste relatively quickly. This is why regular protein intake is required.
How much protein does your body need?
The amount of protein you need to consume is something that is often debated in bodybuilding and athletics forums. Some people calculate the daily protein requirements based on your lean body weight, others on your total body weight. Some just suggest a very high amount, taking the approach that if your body does not use it, it will expel it anyway.
Whether or not too much protein is harmful is also often debated. Many people speculate that it leads to kidney problems, whereas many bodybuilding coaches say that they have never seen or heard of such problems. Some dieticians do believe that many bodybuilders and athletes consume far more protein than they really need and do put themselves at greater risk of heart disease in later life.
The protein equation:
- Daily Protein Requirement = Lean Mass Weight x 2.75 / 1000
Lean mass is your total weight in kg minus your body fat.
To estimate your body fat use this equation:
- For men, Body Fat% = (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x Age) – 16.2
- For women, Body Fat% = (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x Age) – 5.4
So, lets assume that you are overweight but wanting to build muscle and get fit. You need to determine how much protein you need so that you can cut your calories and reduce carbohydrate intake as much as possible without impairing muscle growth.
Example male: 35 years old, weighs 95kg, 175cm tall. Calculation is broken down into parts to make it easier to follow:
Body fat % = (1.20 x 31) + (0.23 x 35) – 16.2
= 37.2 + 8.05 – 16.2
= 29.05% body fat
So the daily protein requirement is:
(95 – (0.2905 x 95)) x 2.75
= (95 – 27.5975) x 2.75
So this adult male would need to consume 185 grams of protein per day as part of their muscle-building diet. This protein can come from any source, so long as it is available when needed.
An alternative protein equation
Of course, you may not wish to do the above calculation. One popular way of calculating protein intake is to use this equation:
- Daily protein requirement (g) = Your body weight in pounds.
So in the above example, the 95kg male weighs about 209 pounds, so the daily requirement would be 209 grams. This actually gives them more protein per day. As this equation does not take into account body fat it may result in more protein than is required being eaten.
A more sensible equation using the metric system would be:
- Daily protein requirement (g) = Weight in kg x 2
So the example male would aim to eat 190g of protein per day, which is very close to the amount calculated using the estimated body fat figures.
Some bodybuilding coaches recommend doubling this figure. However, too much protein will lead to increased body fat if you do not burn the excess calories off that come with the additional protein.
The best time to eat protein for maximum muscle growth
Protein timing is as much an art as a science. However, the key rules are:
- Start the day with protein. Your body is in a catabolic state when you wake up and therefore you are at risk of breaking down muscle tissue for energy. So a quick protein boost helps you to change your metabolism to burn fat instead. Whey protein is best in the morning.
- Eat more protein as snacks in between your meals. Casein protein is a good choice throughout the day because it is a slow release protein which means protein will remain in your blood longer to keep replenishing muscle supplies.
- Protein after your workout. Most people are in agreement that this is the most important time to consume protein. Research has shown that protein should be consumed within 30 minutes of exercise for maximum benefit. The best way to take this protein is as a shake. Whey protein is an excellent choice.
- More protein before bed. As you will ideally be sleeping for at least 8 hours to give your body every chance to recover and rebuild, you need to stock up on protein before you sleep. A late night shake is a good idea here.
Weight training without eating – how important is protein?
Yes! While eating plenty of protein at the right time will help to maximise your gains, you can still build strong, lean muscle when on a normal diet. People were getting fit and lean years before sports nutrition was understood.
You cannot expect to win bodybuilding contests or athletics competitions if you do not concentrate on your diet too, but you can certainly get in great shape. Many people get fit big though weight training and a relatively normal diet.
Best sources of dietary protein
Ideally you should get as much of your protein as possible from healthy dietary sources. One of the pitfalls of attempting to get all your protein from your usual diet is that you start to consume food that is also high in saturated fat and salt. Processed and fried meats should be avoided, so do not eat more hot dogs and salami to get that protein. Here we list some good protein sources:
Whey and casein protein supplements
There are many protein shakes on the market, read the reviews to chose one and then read the labels on each to learn how to use them properly.
Really the key is to eat well-balanced micro-meals throughout the day. Do not neglect your carbohydrates and fats while in the search for more protein, as these are both essential for healthy growth too. Muscles use glycogen for fuel, and the only source of this is from carbohydrate. However, to maintain a healthy diet consume low GI carbohydrates. Fresh salads with your protein choice are an excellent way to eat a balanced diet.
Possibly the most important thing to remember is to test and analyse results. If you start putting on too much weight or you hit a plateau with your training, then look at your diet again to check that you are not eating too much of the wrong type of food.
Health risks of consuming a high protein diet
Some people believe that increasing protein consumption is not without health risks. While many bodybuilders and nutritionists believe that increasing protein consumption is risk free, leading dieticians have stated that there is a link between excess protein intake and chronic illness. What are the health risks associated with excess protein intake?
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) stated in September 2012 that increasing protein intake can lead to short term problems such as nausea and longer term, and more serious conditions, such as kidney and liver damage (Reported on BBC Newsbeat). However, the BBC have not actually referenced the research so we cannot delve deeper into this new statement from the BDA, and there is nothing currently (Sept. 2012) on the BDA website concerning this stance.
Protein supplement manufacturers have responded to this health warning by stating that on average there is only one case per year. The improvements in fitness and internal health that result from improved fitness far outweigh the risks associated with taking extra protein to build more muscle.
The British Department of Health suggests that you do not exceed double the recommended daily intake of protein, which is 55.5 g for men and 45 g for women. So, men should not consume more than 111 grams per day, and women should limit themselves to 90 grams per day. This is around half of the recommendations above for calculating protein intake.
This is still a hotly debated topic. Athletes and bodybuilders are demanding proof that protein is bad – empirical evidence, cohort studies etc. At the moment the research has only shown that protein is not dangerous to health.
One of the most recently published books on this topic, Dietary Protein and Resistance Exercise, also concluded that there was no obvious health risk for strength athletes on high protein diets. The editor of the book, Lonnie M Lowery, also published in 2009 a paper on dietary protein safety and concluded that;
Various researchers have observed the disconnectedness between scientific evidence and public education regarding protein. The lack of population-specific data on athletes and the equivocal nature of existing data on non-athletes (e.g. elderly and even chronic kidney disease patients, beyond the scope of this review) bring into question why there is a “widely held belief that increased protein intake results in calcium wasting” or why “Media releases often conclude that “too much protein stresses the kidney”. Lonnie M Lowery and Lorena Devia, 2009.
The science of protein and muscle development
This paper discusses protein synthesis, muscle protein breakdown and how diet helps to maintain a balance. It explains the importance of carbohydrates in reducing the breakdown of muscle protein post workout.
- “Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth” by Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2001 Mar;11(1):109-32.
- “Ingestion of Casein and Whey Proteins Result in Muscle Anabolism after Resistance Exercise” by Tipton, Kevin D.; Elliott, Tabatha A.; Cree, Melanie G.; Wolf, Steven E.; Sanford, Arthur P.; Wolfe, Robert R. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: December 2004 – Volume 36 – Issue 12 – pp 2073-2081
This research specifically looked at the timing of protein supplementation and found that in elderly men it is better to take a protein supplement soon after exercise.
- “Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans” by B Esmarck, J L Andersen*, S Olsen, E A Richter, M Mizuno and M Kjær. The Journal of Physiology, August 15, 2001, 535, 301-311.
A booklet that looks specifically at the role of protein and resistance exercise, and includes reviews of past research into the possible health risks.
- “Dietary Protein and Resistance Exercise” by Lonnie Michael Lowery, Jose Antonio. Publication Date: April 25, 2012 | ISBN-10: 1439844569.
The paper by Lonnie M Lowery and Lorena Devia which examines the relationship of protein and health, and mentions how the media continues to claim that increased protein causes kidney problems even though there is no scientific evidence to support this.
- “Dietary protein safety and resistance exercise: what do we really know?” by Lonnie M Lowery and Lorena Devia. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2009; 6: 3. Article printed in full: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2631482/