A glimpse down any cereal aisle in America may suggest something most of us already suspect: Americans don’t tend to eat a lot of protein for breakfast. We only have a small amount at lunchtime and tend to save the bulk of our diet’s protein supply for dinner. But how well is this really working for us?
If muscle metabolism specialist Doug Paddon-Jones has anything to say about it, it’s this: “We’re not taking enough protein on board for efficient muscle building and repair during the day, and at night we’re often taking in more than we can use. We run the risk of having this excess oxidized and ending up as glucose or fat.”
Paddon-Jones and his team of scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have introduced new research whose findings runs counter to the way we eat. They’ve demonstrated that the carbohydrate-rich breakfast, lunchtime sandwich or salad, and protein-heavy dinner we tend to consume does not present the most effective culture for healthy aging or muscle strength.
Their work, published in the Journal of Nutrition, suggests that, for optimal muscle growth, it’s best to consume protein evenly throughout the day. In fact, the skewed amount of protein that many Americans consume may be behind conditions like osteoporosis and sarcopenia – age-related diseases that result from longtime lifestyle habits (for better or worse) like diet and exercise.
Paddon-Jones and his team came to these conclusions after measuring muscle protein synthesis rates in healthy adults, who consumed similar diets with different daily protein distribution rates. One group consumed 30 grams of protein at each meal, and the other group ate 10 grams at breakfast, 15 at lunch, and 65 at dinner. Lean beef provided the main source of daily protein. The scientists took blood samples and thigh muscle biopsies, which allowed them to track protein synthesis rates over a period of 24 hours.
The 90 grams of protein that test subjects ate is equal to the average amount that healthy U.S. eaters consume. According to the scientists’ previous work, extremely active individuals may benefit from consuming greater amounts of protein, but the average adult may experience a diminishing positive on muscle metabolism.
Those subjects who consumed protein in even amounts throughout the day saw a 25 percent greater muscle protein synthesis after 24 hours. These results remained steady over a period of several days. However, this more-effective way of eating differs greatly from the average modern American diet. When we consider these facts, it seems inevitable that we incorporate a few changes in our diet.
Paddon-Jones offers some simple advice: “You don’t have to eat massive amounts of protein to maximize muscle synthesis, you just have to be a little more thoughtful with how you apportion it.”
Start by replacing a portion of your breakfast carbs – especially simple sugars – with high-quality protein, like an egg, glass of milk, or sugar-free yogurt. Top the meal off with a handful of seasonal nuts. Apply the same tactics to lunch, and reduce the amount of protein you eat at dinner.
“Do this,” Paddon-Jones says, “and over the course of the day you will likely spend much more time synthesizing muscle protein.”