Recently, there’s been a flurry of research on the optimal intake of protein that I have found to be quite interesting.
To save you time, I’ve gleaned three important findings from these studies and present them here.
1) The RDA for protein may be too low.
The current RDA for protein intake in healthy people is set at 0.8 grams of high quality protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg).
So, if you weigh 150 lbs, which is 68 kg, then you would need 54 grams of protein each day (0.8 x 68 = 54).
But if you are wanting to build more muscle mass (or maintain what you have), you may need more protein, according to the latest research on protein. Some scientist believe that the current RDA is too low.
The reason is because we lose muscle as we age, especially if we don't consume enough protein and we don't use our muscles. This is called sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle mass. Consuming adequate protein AND using our muscles will prevent most of the loss of muscle and help to keep us living independently as long as possible.
Our muscle mass is regulated by a balance between muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). When MPS exceeds MPB for long and frequent periods of time, muscle growth or “hypertrophy” is the result.
Conversely, when there is a net negative protein balance, where MPB exceeds MPS, a reduction in muscle mass occurs, also known as atrophy.
Lest you think that MPS is only important for bodybuilders, consider that muscle mass, strength, and function are vital to recovery from trauma, critical illness, maintaining normal glucose metabolism, resting energy expenditure, and independent mobility. Thus, protein amount, quality, and daily distribution are important for everyone.
So how much more protein do you need to maintain or build muscle mass? The studies are suggesting 1.2 – 1.4 g/kg/day as the formula for estimating your protein needs of young adults and 1.4 – 1.6 g/kg/day for older adults.
BUT you should NOT consume all or most of that protein in one meal. This brings me to the 2nd important tidbit of helpful info on protein:
2) Distribute your protein requirement into 3-4 meals and 2-3 snacks. Many people eat little or no breakfast, a small lunch, and then a big protein-filled dinner as shown below.
Protein is made up of amino acids (more on that later) and it appears that when large amounts of protein are consumed in one meal, the excess amino acids are “deaminated” (stripped of the nitrogen component in their molecular structure) and excreted. Buh-bye amino acids!
To prevent this from happening, it’s better to spread your protein out into 3 or 4 meals per day. This is because a “meal protein threshold” needs to be reached every four hours or so, to stimulate MPS and to maintain skeletal muscle mass and function as shown below.
How much do you need at each meal? Aim for the following amounts:
0.25 g/kg/meal for younger adults (about 20 – 30 grams of protein/meal).
0.40 g/kg/meal for older adults (about 30 – 40 grams of protein/meal).
Sometimes it’s hard to get that much protein in a meal. To make it easier, you can try adding a "pre-sleep" protein supplement or meal. The idea is that MPB may increase overnight, especially if you don’t eat for more than 12 hours. To prevent a long period where MPS rates are low, eating a high-protein snack prior to bedtime may do the trick.
Dr. Stuart Phillips at McMaster University explains this concept nicely in a neat little promotional video for a protein product called Ascent. I am NOT promoting this product (or any product) but I thought the video did a good job of explaining why pre-sleep protein might help you meet your protein needs.
You could have Greek yogurt, eggs, or a drink made with any whey, casein, or soy protein powders to get the same result.
3) Proteins with a large amount of the amino acid leucine stimulate MPS more than proteins with a lower amount.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are referred to as “the building blocks of protein”. One of these building blocks is leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA). Leucine appears to have a larger effect on muscle-building than others BCAA’s because it triggers a pathway called “mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1” (mTORC1) which is necessary for starting the MPS process.
It appears that the quantity of leucine reaching the bloodstream is important, because the mTORC1 pathway is only initiated when a critical level of leucine is reached, suggesting there might be a “leucine trigger”. However, more is not better because excess amounts of leucine are simply oxidized or deaminated and excreted.
The studies are showing that the ideal amount of leucine is 2.2 – 3.0 grams of leucine per meal.
So, what protein foods are high in leucine? Whey protein isolate, soy protein isolate, cottage and ricotta cheese, meat, and greek yogurt to name a few. However, there is a calorie cost to some leucine-containing foods.
For example, you would have to eat the following amount of food to get 2.5 grams of leucine:
Whey protein isolate – 1 ounce, 92 calories
Soy protein isolate – 1 ounce, 125 calories
Greek yogurt – 1.1 cups, 143 calories
Eggs – 4.6, 321 calories
Top Round beef – 1.3 servings, 391 calories
Raw peanuts – 5 servings, 876 calories
Whole wheat bread – 12.8 servings, 3462 calories
Should you take leucine supplements? You can but that’s s an expensive way to get leucine. It's always best to try food before supplements so I would recommend trying to incorporate more high-leucine foods into your diet before resorting to supplements.
But if you don't like any of the high-leucine foods or can't tolerate them for any reason, a leucine supplement is an option. Do not take BCAA supplements because the branch chained amino acids compete for uptake which make leucine less available for use.
One more caveat: This only works if you are in “energy balance“, which means you are getting enough total calories each day. If you are dieting, the leucine may be used to replace the muscle that you are probably losing while dieting (more on this in a future article). Thus, protein and leucine needs are even higher for dieters (another reason NOT to diet!).
Of course, research is ongoing and there is more to learn but for now, your best bet is to consume at least 20 grams of protein at each meal and to include leucine-containing foods as often as possible.
If you'd like have your diet analyzed to see if you are consuming enough protein and/or leucine, schedule a Discovery Call with me and we can talk about the options I have available to work together.
“I love Cindy’s approach to making long-term health changes based on science. I worked with her on my nutrition about a year ago to get ready for my 60th birthday. I am happy to say that I was able to achieve my goals and continue some great long-term health habits. I recommend her and Kurt as coaches who really care” Janet, Women in Motion participant
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Phillips SM et al. Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab.2016:41:565-572.
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