One of the most asked about topics or articles people always want to know about is in regards to protein intake. Many athletes or general gym goers will continue to wonder what is the adequate amount, how often should I be intaking protein, how often should we spread out meals, and how often should we allow protein levels to reach their refractory stages before being spiked again. Over the years I have followed a lot of individuals who research protein timing, protein doses, and also individuals who study branch chain amino acids for a living (Layne Norton) which has an impact on showing the benefits to dosing out larger meals spaced further apart. Is the common eating every 2-3 hours truth? Or is a myth? What facts are there to back that and what facts are there to back larger meals spaced further apart? Not only are these topics going to be covered, but also how much per meal, and how often with research to back that from Alan Aragon.
The Protein Debate Begins
First of all dating way back to when protein was first researched The American Dietetics Association (ADA) that gave a prescribed .5 grams per pound of bodyweight (.4g/lb). Not only was this applied to athletes but this was applied to nearly 95% of the population that walked the earth. The key thing to factor here is that not much research was done on bodybuilders in the early 90’s or the turn of 2000’s. Due to this the general recommendation this may have been a far stretch until more recent times where people took more pride and results off human results than putting faith in people in lab coats. When we look back compared to research now how different is it, and when did this start to evolve?
Fast forward to more research times and general consensus of protein intake was far more researched into the 2000’s. The Journal of Sports and Science did various Pubmed research on athletes to try and gather some more information. Professor Tipton and Wolfe who were in charge of demonstrating the research and varied amounts of athletes to see if less or more was appropriate relating to muscle mass and also muscle retention in athletes. These professors took amounts up to 2g/lb of protein and down to around .75g of protein and the result showed little or limited evidence for positive effects of a very high intake of protein for an athlete or lifter. The key factor behind the research was there was not much rational to overall increasing protein towards muscle hypertrophy. They also studied the results in a slight caloric deficit too on higher protein intake and higher level activities and there was also no change in nitrogen balance (Manninen another research assistant in the lab notified). While this has more backing than the lower limits from the ADA we are still not sold on the amount of protein needed for athletes or general gym goers. What we did note is that even with the higher protein intake there were no downsides to the overall health of the athletes when they were monitored.
Recent Years | Research
As we move towards the 2010 era we saw a lot more research being done by individuals such as Lyle McDonald who wrote “The Protein Book”. Alan Aragon had a great article he did on how much protein per meal that was published on the wannabebig forums, Layne Norton also did a great few power points on Protein Synthesis, and Martin Berkhan has some good research on protein intake and rates off his leangains website that I want to talk about.
First off if you have never read any of Lyle McDonald’s books I highly suggest you do so because of the information that he does provide in the books for you to acquire and utilize. Not only on protein intake, but also the Stubborn Diet Protocol and Keto Diet books is a wealth of knowledge. Lyle on the other hand in essence stated that around 1.4g of protein/lb would be a general intake for habitual strength athletes (based off his book). That intake is especially based off those who are dieting and need a higher end of protein intake compared to those in a surplus who will need less protein intake due to carbs being protein sparing and a higher caloric need. When it comes to endurance athletes the need for protein will drop a bit to around 1g/lb but will be around the 1.25g/lb when it comes to those dieting to help maintain muscle mass during long bouts of exercise or activity.
Alan Aragon if you have ever followed him does a lot of nutritional research and wrote a fantastic article off the wannabebig forums on protein intake on how much and how often. While Alan was a strong advocate of around 1g/lb for most trainees and endurance athletes, he also utilizes this aspects in his own clients. In a personal interview with Alan Aragon, he explained his major focus was on reaching that proper intake and then spacing those meals out to at least 3 meals per day. In his article on the wannabebig forums his research was based solely off the 20-30g of protein per meal myth and his research and findings concluded that “short term effects provided hints what might be an optimal dose for maximizing anabolism a lot more than 20-30g as most people think. The long answer is it depends on several factors including the amount per meal (it will take longer to digest larger meals). Alan had research shown by Dr. Soeters and colleagues that showed a 20 hour fast in individuals and those individuals taking in over 100g of protein in a 4 hour window and still seeing no difference in lean mass and muscle protein synthesis between groups with a spread out intake over the course of a day.
More research he found based off his article was that if you consume around 80% of your protein needs in one meal versus the same amount spread across four meals there were little to no difference in fat free mass or nitrogen retention. Lastly I want to touch upon one last research aspect he foud by Dr. Symons and colleagues is in a 5-hour response to protein intake and the results. When one individual used lean beef to acquire 30g of protein in multiple meals vs 90g of protein in a single meal the difference was negligible. The 30g servings (3 of them) compared to the 90g serving showed minimal increase in muscle protein synthesis, but overall enhanced muscle protein synthesis did not vary at all showing you more backing to less meals maybe being more optimal than frequent meals.
Dr. Layne Norton
Protein research continued to evolve with Layne Norton at the forefront with two great powerpoint presentations on muscle protein synthesis. His hypothesis was based off dosing meals further apart and using BCAA’s as a bolus between meals to help spike protein synthesis and then allow protein levels to reach their refractory stages before being spiked again compared to eating every 2-3 hours and constantly elevating protein levels. During his research Layne utilized up to 3-4g of BCAA’s (in leucine) between meals that were 4-6 hours apart and with that he saw an increase in nitrogen balance and overturn in muscle protein synthesis compared to eating more frequent meals (every 2-3 hours). Therefore it would take almost 30-50g of protein (Depending on the source and leucine content) to meet those requirements. With that said he noted that his protein intake would likely be around 1-1.5g/lb based off the individual and their current goal (higher for one on a cutting or restricted caloric intake) and lower (for those who have a higher intake or those who are trying to add size with a caloric surplus). Food sources that were highest in leucine came down to Whey Protein, Eggs (Due to a high BV), and Beef as primary sources in ones diet.
With that said Martin Berkhan who is an advocate of a lower meal frequency based in an eating window (lean gains or a form of intermittent fasting) has posted a fantastic article called “The Top 10 Fasting Myths Debunked). As I stated in some of alan’s research Martin is another one to back his stance and you can see that on his website and the articles he does provide. A basis for martin on his stance with Protein intake is “if you are in taking higher doses of Leucine (Similar to Layne’s Theory) then less total protein intake is needed to stimulate MPS (muscle protein Synthesis) at each meal. Considering Martin is one to advocate around 3 meals a day within an 8 hour period (leangains) that makes sense when you see Alan and his research showing no real different in nitrogen or lean muscle mass in the 24 hour period. It goes to show you that more research and evidence can back the lower meal frequency that Layne was talking about yet his research shows meals spaced 4-6 hours apart (which could happen in the 8 hour period with 3 meals). Martin also is a big advocate sometimes of doing 2 meals a day based on the individuals caloric intake (more so dieting) and satiety with larger meals and when calories may get down into the 1200-1500 kcal range and splitting them between pre/post workout or training fasted with BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids) and following Post-workout and pre-bed (or end of the fast) with another protein feeding in the 8 hour window.
All of this research may be a lot to grasp throughout this article, but it all has its place in time in bodybuilding and general fitness. Protein intake may be one of the most heavily studied things out there in the last 5-6 years regarding how much and how often. Let some of this research and evidence persuade you to tool with your intake, try different amounts per meal, and also vary your frequency to see what suits your body. The key aspect to take away from this is not everyone is the same. Some will still thrive off 5-6 meals a day, and some will find it easier to do 3-4 and make the same if not better results in the gym. Research is something you can take with a grain of salt regarding how much protein and how often, now it comes down to applying it to the real world and varying your caloric intake to see what proves best for you! My general Stance would be 1-1.25g/lb and also spread into 3-5 meals (based off personal preference).