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When to Eat Protein
Just as important as the amount and type of protein athletes should eat is when they should eat it. As a result of physical activity, muscle breaks down. If protein intake is low, that muscle isn’t replaced. Those who are acclimated to regular exercise experience less muscle protein breakdown.9 However, protein needs are greater during intense bouts of training. The general consensus is that protein ingestion after exercise, when muscle is most sensitive to nutrient intake, will boost muscle protein synthesis and recovery.10,11
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When beginning endurance training, nitrogen balance may be negative for the first two weeks, and protein requirements may be higher in the first week of strength training to support new muscle growth. After one to two weeks of training, however, typically the body adapts and the protein utilization decreases. In general, adequate calorie and carbohydrate intake reduces the need for amino acid oxidation for energy and spares dietary protein and muscle tissue. Protein sparing is based on the concept that if adequate energy is consumed from carbohydrate and fat then dietary protein is available for protein-unique functions (ie, protein synthesis [tissue, hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, etc]). To protect muscle protein, consider counseling athletes to temporarily increase protein intake when starting a new training program or entering a new training phase.2
Since added protein intake is critical for athletes and physically active people, should they consume a high-protein diet? Instead of recommending protein as grams per kilogram of body weight, the Institute of Medicine established an acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein at 10% to 35% of total calories for adults older than 18.1 The Institute of Medicine defines the acceptable macronutrient distribution range as a range of intake associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases while providing adequate intakes of essential nutrients. The average protein intake in the United States of 15% of total calories is well within the acceptable macronutrient distribution range but well below recommended intakes for most athletes. 1,13 Even the 95th percentile of protein intake for US adults doesn’t come close to the highest acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein at 35% of total calories.14 Higher intakes of high-quality protein recommended for athletes would still be well within the acceptable macronutrient distribution range.14
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The mixture of proteins in the American diet averages about 8% leucine. The range of protein thought to stimulate muscle protein synthesis after a meal is about 2.5 to 3.5 g.7 Dairy products, beef, poultry, seafood, pork, peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans are among the foods richest in leucine.8
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Research suggests that of all the essential amino acids, leucine may be the limiting factor in initiating muscle protein synthesis, and that leucine-rich proteins may be the best way to boost muscle protein synthesis after intense physical activity.7 Some researchers suggest that protein quality based on leucine content is important when consuming small meals or when the total amount of protein consumed is less than optimal.7
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While maintaining nitrogen balance is critical for health, studies now suggest that the RDA may not be the amount of protein needed to promote optimal health. To achieve that, they say, more protein is needed, and studies now suggest that athletes, active people, and older individuals require even more.
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Controversy exists among medical experts regarding the role protein plays in maintaining optimal health. They debate about when to consume it, how much to consume, and what type is best, especially for athletes and highly active people.
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A study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition found that muscle protein synthesis was 25% higher when protein was evenly distributed across breakfast, lunch, and dinner compared with a more typical pattern, when most protein was consumed at the evening meal, even when total protein intake was the same.12 Protein that’s evenly distributed throughout the day may be especially important for older, physically active adults, as older individuals experience a resistance to muscle protein synthesis in response to meals containing less protein; in other words, the protein threshold to trigger muscle protein synthesis is higher in older individuals.12