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How to Build More Muscle with Less Protein

Research suggests that higher protein meals can help you lose weight, slow aging, and speed recovery. But what if you don't want to—or can't—eat that much protein? Read on for tips on how to get more benefit from less protein.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
October 3, 2017
Episode #448

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protein options like salmon, chicken, steak, eggs, avocado and nuts

Buckle your seat belts and pull out your pocket protectors: We’re going full nutrition-nerd today, talking about the role of dietary protein in maximizing muscle protein synthesis. But don’t assume that this is only of interest to body-builders! Applying these insights to your daily meals can have a monumental impact on your ability to maintain a healthy body weight, age successfully, and bounce back from illness and injury.

In a previous episode on preventing age-related muscle loss, I explained that you can get more protein benefit without eating more protein, simply by distributing your protein more evenly over the course of the day. Since then, I’ve heard from many of you asking how to adapt this advice to various situations and dietary patterns—such as those that are lower in protein.

I recently attended a meeting with some of the world’s top protein researchers and in between sessions I hit them up for their insights on the questions you’ve raised. I’ve got some great new information to share with you but first, let’s back up and talk muscle protein synthesis.

How does your body make muscle?

Building and repairing muscle tissue requires proteinand that’s a nutrient that our bodies have to use as it comes in; we can’t store it for future use. Whenever we eat foods containing protein, we get a little burst of muscle-building activity. The amount of muscle you build is dependent on the amount of protein you take in at that meal. Eat a little protein, build a little muscle. Take in more protein, build more muscle...but only up to a point.

Research by Douglas Paddon Jones of the University of Texas has shown that muscle protein synthesis peaks at about 30 grams of protein per meal. Anything above that is largely wasted in terms of its muscle-building benefit.

Just to give you a quick frame of reference, a typical chicken breast contains 50 to 65 grams of protein. An 8-ounce sirloin contains about 70 grams of protein. A half cup of Greek yogurt contains about 10 grams of protein and an egg contains 6 grams of protein. To see how much protein you get from other foods, check out my protein cheat sheet.

The best time to take protein

The average protein intake in the US is just under 90 grams of protein per day. However, we typically eat over two-thirds of that (around 60 grams) at dinner time, with breakfast and lunch typically being much lower in protein. That means that, despite taking in plenty of protein over the course of the day, most of us are only maxing out our muscle building processes once a day.

Maximizing protein synthesis once a day is definitely better than nothing. But there’s a missed opportunity here. Paddon Jones has demonstrated that by taking that same 90 grams of protein and dividing it more evenly across three meals, we can maximize protein synthesis three times a day instead of just once.  

In practical terms, this usually means eating a lot less protein at dinner and a lot more protein at breakfast. There’s certainly nothing wrong with eating half a chicken breast or salmon filet for breakfast, but if you’re not ready to start your day with a turkey burger, a versatile source of protein like whey protein powder can also be a big help. This article includes suggestions for using protein powder to bump up the protein content of typical breakfast and lunch foods.

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