A weight trainer who doesn’t wax poetic about protein is about as rare as a two-minute steak. That’s because the role of dietary protein in building loads of muscle has been played out in research papers since Arnold Schwarzenegger started tossing iron on Muscle Beach in Southern California. Yet many people have a tendency to skew their intake toward later in the day: They’ll have a big chunk of meat for dinner but a carb-rich breakfast and a lunch dominated by a lowly sandwich. Big mistake.
In a watershed study from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, researchers found that an individual’s muscle-growth potential is less than optimal when a large chunk of daily protein intake occurs at one meal instead of being parceled out throughout the day. They determined that consuming 30-gram portions of protein is the new muscle math. When study volunteers ate diets containing this amount of protein at each of three meals, their 24-hour protein-synthesis levels — the key to muscle growth — was 25 percent higher than that experienced in people who ingested the same total amount of protein but who ate 10 grams in the morning, 15 grams at midday and 65 grams at night.
“This shows that the most efficient way to trigger protein synthesis and give you more opportunity to add muscle is to spread out your protein intake instead of consuming most of it during a single meal,” says study co-author Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “In other words, a more efficient muscle-making strategy for most people would be to shift some of that excess protein consumed at dinner to lunch and breakfast.”
Consistent protein intake may also keep your fat-burning metabolism revving, improve blood-sugar control and help you feel satiated so your hands stay out of the cookie jar. Follow these meal suggestions to strike a better protein balance.
While breakfast is notoriously carb-centric, daybreak is the time to take your protein intake seriously. Rolling out of bed and noshing on protein puts the brakes on the muscle breakdown that can occur during an overnight fast. Moreover, studies show that infusing breakfast with protein can help quell vending-machine temptation by bolstering satiety. And be sure to mix in some healthy fat sources. A 2014 study published in the journal Appetite suggests that including fat at breakfast at the expense of carbs may keep flab at bay by improving blood-sugar control and reducing hunger pangs throughout the morning.
Breakfast Option #1
2 whole eggs and 3 egg whites, scrambled; 1 cup cooked rolled oats topped with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts and ½ cup blueberries
Nutrition Data: 475 calories, 30 grams protein, 41 grams carbs, 22 grams fat
Bonus Points: Oats are rich in beta-glucan, a soluble fiber shown to shave down cholesterol numbers. Among nuts, walnuts are a leading source of heart-healthy and joint-friendly omega-3 fats.
Breakfast Option #2
1 cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt topped with 1 cup raspberries; 1 slice whole-grain toast topped with 1 tablespoon almond butter or peanut butter
Nutrition Data: 351 calories, 31 grams protein, 40 grams carbs, 10 grams fat
Bonus Points:Greek yogurt is an underrated protein powerhouse that supplies gut-friendly probiotics, while raspberries are a stellar source of fat-fighting, craving-crushing dietary fiber.
Breakfast Option #3
Top 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese with 1/2 cup low-sugar granola, 2 tablespoons chopped almonds and 1 cup sliced strawberries.
Nutrition Data: 408 calories, 46 grams protein, 63 grams carbs, 30 grams fat
Bonus Points: Strawberries are a leading source of vitamin C, which scientists at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found can help lower blood-pressure numbers.
To keep muscle building going full force even when you’re trapped in a cubicle, be sure your brown bag contains plenty of protein. While it’s common to put lunch off during a hectic workday, you do so at the risk of your six-pack. According to a 2014 International Journal of Obesity study, subjects who ate lunch at 1 p.m. experienced an increased rate of resting energy expenditure (aka fat burning), better blood-sugar control and improved thermal effect of food (the calories used to process that turkey sandwich) than those who had a late-afternoon lunch.
Lunch Option #1
Stuff two pita halves with 1 can (6 ounces) pink salmon, 1/2 cup sauerkraut, ¼ avocado, 2 cups baby spinach and 1 cup shredded carrot.
Nutrition Data: 540 calories, 41 grams protein, 59 grams carbs, 15 grams fat
Bonus Points:The boatload of omega-3 fats found in salmon may help boost muscle protein synthesis even further, say researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. And anytime you can work fermented foods like sauerkraut and its population of beneficial critters into your diet, go for it.
Lunch Option #2
4 ounces grilled chicken breast, 1 cup cooked quinoa, salad (2 cups baby kale, 1 cup chopped cherry tomatoes, 2 tablespoons chopped nuts)
Nutrition Data: 526 calories, 40 grams protein, 58 grams carbs, 17 grams fat
Bonus Points:Armed with a full arsenal of amino acids, quinoa is one of the most muscle-friendly grain options. With no chopping required and a less bitter taste than the grown-up greens, convenient baby kale is a surefire way to load up on antioxidants at midday.
Lunch Option #3
Toss together ½ cup each canned black beans, kidney beans and pinto beans, rinsed and drained; cup diced feta cheese; 1 cup chopped red bell pepper; 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes; cup chopped parsley; and juice of ½ lemon.
Nutrition Data: 515 calories, 31 grams protein, 75 grams carbs, 11 grams fat
Bonus Points:Consuming beans for your lunch protein delivers a huge amount of dietary fiber, which most Americans don’t get enough of. A study from the Netherlands reports that eating a high-fiber diet may help prevent arterial stiffness, a risk factor for coronary disease.
While dinner tends to be the most protein-heavy meal of the day, more is not necessarily better when it comes to building muscle. In a separate study conducted by Paddon-Jones and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, participants who consumed 90 grams of protein in the form of lean beef during a single meal did not experience significantly higher amounts of protein synthesis than when they consumed just 30 grams. This means your body can make use of only so much protein at once. “When you take in a lot more protein than necessary, you run the risk of the excess calories ending up in your fat stores,” Paddon-Jones says. You should still seek out protein for your evening repast, just not a whole side of beef.
Dinner Option #1
4 ounces top sirloin steak, 1 baked sweet potato, 2 cups steamed broccoli with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Nutrition Data: 494 calories, 41 grams protein, 36 grams carbs, 22 grams fat
Bonus Points:The orange tinge of sweet potatoes is a tip-off that these spuds are loaded with beta-carotene, an antioxidant that can be converted to vitamin A in the body to bolster immune, eye and bone health.
Dinner Option #2
4 ounces tilapia, 1 cup cooked brown rice, 3 cups steamed Swiss chard topped with 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
Nutrition Data: 521 calories, 39 grams protein, 67 grams carbs, 12 grams fat
Bonus Points: Groovy hemp seeds provide a dynamic duo of protein and omega fatty acids. Very few foods available at the supermarket provide the nutrient bounty found in Swiss chard.
Dinner Option #3
Stir-fry ½ block extra-firm tofu with 1 sliced carrot, 1 cup halved snow peas, 1 sliced red bell pepper and seasonings of choice; serve over ½ cup cooked quinoa and top with 1 tablespoon sesame seeds.
Nutrition Data: 482 calories, 35 grams protein, 40 grams carbs, 21 grams fat
Bonus Points: Soy protein, which has been shown to elevate levels of growth hormone and nitric oxide, is a potent muscle builder. It will not interfere with T levels, so don’t fear the tasty tofu. Veggies and quinoa deliver fiber to help prevent late-night fridge raids.