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Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?

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I had the pleasure of moderating a nutrition symposium by the Dairy Farmers of Canada in 2013 which focused on protein.


The presenters looked at 3 principle areas of research including a review of current protein recommendations for children, adults and older adults, as well as, protein’s role in healthy aging, and weight management.


Even though this was four years ago, protein as a focus for improved health is still gaining traction and with good reason: protein is an essential nutrient for optimal health.


While most Canadians get enough protein to prevent a protein deficiency, most are not consuming it in a way that optimizes muscle growth, repair and maintenance.


Eggs brown and white - Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?


Protein does a body good.

Protein is an essential nutrient that people of all ages need for the growth, repair and maintenance of nearly all bodily tissues such as muscles, obviously, but also for bone, teeth, skin, all organs, blood cells, antibodies and for the maintenance of our digestive tract.


Most don’t realize that the lining our intestinal tract turns over every 3 to 6 days; it’s protein requirements are huge relative to something like our muscles which turn over at a slower rate.


We need about 20 different amino acids to build and maintain this wonderful body of ours and of the 20, nine are essential because the body cannot make them on its own so they must come from the diet.


Protein is key for growing kids.


Their bodies use a lot of protein on a per body weight basis but protein also helps to keep them full throughout the day which studies show support learning.


A hungry kid cannot focus at school and a hungry kid won’t get the nutrients their brains need for continued development and to support good mental health including mood.


It’s all about timing

Unlike fat and carbohydrate, we don’t have the ability to store protein beyond what is used to make up muscle and other tissues. Extra dietary fat can be stored as body fat which we can be tapped into at times when we need extra energy.


Likewise, dietary carbohydrate is stored in our livers and muscle as glycogen which provides energy between meals and while we sleep.


Protein on the other hand, ideally needs to be consumed throughout the day in order to provide a steady stream of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, for muscles to be their best.


When it comes to getting enough protein, studies show that Canadians are doing well. Adults easily consume 80 to 90 grams of protein per day without much effort when they eat a variety of wholesome foods but their timing might not be the best.


Breakfasts tend to be lowest in protein followed by lunch with dinner getting the lion’s share of the protein allotment .


Why does this matter? Research shows that muscle ‘protein synthesis’, a.k.a. the stimulation of new muscle tissue needed for growth, repair and maintenance, needs a minimum amount of protein delivered to them in order to get maximal muscle growth; skimp on protein and muscle protein synthesis drops.


Eggs 300x200 - Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?


How much protein do you need per day?

Studies of eating patterns indicate that many of us get about 10, maybe 15 g of protein at breakfast, another 20 g at lunch and 50 or so grams at dinner. While children and teens can get away with this given their pro-growth state, adults, and especially older adults cannot.


They need a higher amount, consistently at each meal, to help stimulate muscle growth and slow down muscle loss; the magic number seems to be about 25 to 30 g of protein per meal to do this.


The 30/30/30 rule is about aiming to get about 30 g of of good quality protein (from all sources) at each meal, especially breakfast.


Why? Because most of us haven’t eaten for at least 12 hours since our last meal (dinner) and we all wake up in a negative protein balance; we’ve lost some muscle while we sleep because, as mentioned at the start of this post, we can’t store protein in a meaningful way.


Because we haven’t eaten, our supply of amino acids as dropped over night so we’ve had to borrow some from our muscle while in dreamland and we need to replenish that.


One of the easiest ways to boost your breakfast protein intake is with eggs; they have traditionally been a breakfast staple and today, it’s easier than ever before to get more egg nutrition.


There are lots of great egg-based products on the market that help to remove the greatest barrier we all have when it comes to eating healthfully – a lack of time.


Starting around the age of 40, we start to lose muscle. This is referred to as sarcopenia, also known as age-related muscle loss; the insidious degenerative loss of muscle mass that increases more so after age 50 (0.5 to 1% per year after the age of 50), as well as, loss of muscle quality and strength.


Because it happens so slowly, it goes largely unnoticed until later on in life. Sarcopenia is the underlying cause of frailty and loss of independence in the elderly.


Sarcopenia chart 1024x821 - Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?


The solution?

You guessed it, protein but not only protein, protein coupled with some kind of resistance exercise/activity. Muscles need to be stimulated, or ‘told’ to take up the amino acids from protein and nothing does that better than good old-fashioned activity.


As the saying goes, use it or lose it.


Regardless of age, exercise can increase muscle protein synthesis by up to 50% but you have to go beyond your comfort level and push yourself if you really want to hang onto muscle – safely of course, getting injured is not cool.


Weight lifting cable fly - Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?


Getting more protein in your diet

Protein-rich foods include meats, fish, poultry, cheeses, milk, eggs, nuts, seeds, and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans), as well as, protein powders like whey, soy (I prefer fermented soy versions), pea, and hemp protein.


Whole grains and pseudo grains like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat also lend to the protein bottom line.




Eggs, large, 2 whole

12 g

Greek yogurt, ¾ cup (178 ml)

15 g

Cheese, 1 oz (28 g) or milk, 1 cup (250 ml)

8 g

Egg whites, ½ cup (125 ml)

14 g

Lentils, ½ cup (125 ml)

9 g

Whey protein, 1 scoop

20 – 25 g

Quinoa, 1 cup (250 ml)

8 g

Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (30 ml)

8 g

Chicken, beef, pork, fish, 4 oz (114 g)

28 g

Kidney beans, ½ cup (125 ml)

21 g

Hemp protein powder, 4 Tbsp (60 ml)

15 g

Almonds, 1 oz (28 g), 23 kernels

6 g

Lentils medical news - Getting enough protein. Is it all about timing?


Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.