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Protein Timing for Optimizing Lean Muscle Mass E-mail
Written by Jeff Behar, MS, MBA   

The goal for anyone wishing to optimize muscle building and minimize the storage of excess calories as body fat is to eat as perfectly as possible so that the body is provided a steady stream of nutrients, and so that blood sugar levels also remain steady. One of the most important ways to accomplish this goal besides eating high quality, low fat foods is to eat small multiple meals (every 2 to 3 hours).

Successful bodybuilders know that by eating at least six evenly spaced meals throughout the day, they provide their muscles with a steady stream of nutrients, keeping their body in an anabolic environment (as indicated by a positive nitrogen balance).

Eating smaller more frequent meals is very important when it comes to protein consumption because proteins cannot be stored in the body like carbohydrates can (carbohydrates can be stored in the liver as glycogen and used up to days later when needed).

Since there is only a very small amount of amino acid in the bloodstream, to maintain an anabolic (muscle building) environment complete proteins must be eaten with every meal. It is the acute and large increase in the amount of amino acids in the blood that causes protein synthesis rates to increase as well as a decrease in protein breakdown.

Eating small evenly spaced meals keeps insulin levels stable, a requirement for proper fat metabolism and proper growth. Eating this way is also easier on the digestive system and it is also more efficient. Studies have shown that eating frequent smaller meals will raise the metabolic rate, burn more calories and result in less body fat storage.

Maintaining a positive nitrogen balance will prevent the body from dipping into its own muscle tissue (catabolism) to get nutrients it needs (like protein). This is why it is important to eat five to six protein-containing meals per day (one about every two to three hours) each containing around 30-40-grams of protein, to maintain a positive nitrogen balance (which occurs from the breakdown of amino acids).

The rate of digestion of protein has important effects on protein balance within the body. The balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown determines muscle gain.

Protein is generally characterized as "fast digesting" or "slow digesting". Therefore to optimize muscle syntheses however, competitive bodybuilders need to take protein timing one step further. In this sense protein timing also includes eating the "right" protein at the right time. What does this mean?

Protein Meal Timing
Nutrition is a highly individual issue. No single diet will work for everyone. Although adjustments should be made to each personalized diet to account for the differences in metabolism and body type there are common approaches that work reasonable well to a majority of people. The following is a simplified approach that can serve as a starting point.

Upon Waking
When waking up in the morning, your body has essentially been through a "fast" since most people sleep for approximately 6 to 8 hours a day. When the body is deprived of food for 6 to 8 hours the body starts to use stored energy sources. In order to keep blood sugar constant and to fuel the brain and other tissues during sleep. The body does this by slowly sending nutrients out from the liver, fat cells, and muscle cells.

Because the body can use stored glycogen for energy (if you have eaten properly to maximize glycogen storage there is only minimal body cell destruction (because of the body's inability to store amino acids).  Because of this limitation the best thing you can do for your body is to consume a relatively quick digesting protein source upon waking.

A whey protein or protein hydrolysate shake would be your best bet to raise blood amino acid profiles quickly since these mixes will take only 20 minutes before almost all of what you have consumed are coursing through your veins and somewhere between 20-40 minutes for the level of amino acids in your blood to reach its high point.  This can then be followed up with normal breakfast meal consisting of a high quality low fat protein food source and some low glycemic carbohydrates.

Protein Consumption During The Day
Since, throughout the day, your goal should be to eat small, dense meals every few hours; the need for "special" proteins is limited. My preference is the consumption of high quality low fat protein food sources and some low glycemic carbohydrates or a good protein mix. If you are unable to eat a good meal every two hours consuming a good whey/casein/milk protein isolate/concentrate blend can be a good compromise due to the combination of fast proteins and slow proteins.

Immediately Before Training
If you have been eating small multiple meals throughout the day than there would be no need for "special" proteins from non food sources. However, if you have missed a meal and you plan on training within 60 minutes than a quick digesting fast protein such as a whey protein hydrolysate fortified carbs, glutamine and branched-chain amino acids. Consuming a liquid meal containing protein and carbohydrates one-hour before training can increase insulin (an anabolic hormone, which increases the uptake of amino acids and glucose into the muscle).

Branched-chain amino acids stimulate of protein synthesis. By incorporating extra BCAA's which are consumed during the workout your complete proteins can be used for recovery. If extra Branch-chain amino acids are not consumed the body will consume them from the complete proteins making the rest of the protein incomplete and unusable for growth (wasted).
Consuming a liquid meal containing protein and carbohydrates one-hour before training can increase insulin (an anabolic hormone, which increases the uptake of amino acids and glucose into the muscle).

Protein Consumption Immediately After Training
The meal immediately following your training is probably THE most important meal of the day (don't listen to others that will tell you breakfast is). The post work out meal is extremely important because this is the time where the body is especially receptive for nutrient uptake. Blood amino levels and blood insulin levels are typically lower. Because blood amino acids levels are lower this is an important time to consume a quick digesting fast protein such as whey protein hydrolysates to ensure that the body maintains a positive nitrogen balance and anabolic state.

Hydrolyzed proteins have a higher Biological Value score than concentrates or other protein preparations which typically means better utilization of protein in the body. Higher Biological Value proteins may also increase the release of IGF-1 which can stimulate muscle growth.

The extreme hunger of the cells and the fast-acting properties of whey will make sure you use the best window for recovery to the fullest. If not, the body will hunt the stored reserves of nutrients and when on a diet for example that will cause them to rob other muscle-tissue of glutamine. 

A minimal amount of rapidly digesting, high glycemic index carbohydrates (i.e. maltodextrin and dextrose) should also be consumed with the post workout whey protein meal, so that the total uptake of protein and glycogen storage can be maximized. Note: The incorporation of high glycemic index carbohydrates with this post training meal stimulates large and rapid increases in the anabolic hormone insulin and also stimulates glycogen synthesis. 

Consuming creatine and glutamine can also aid in post work out recovery. This meal should also contain minimal fat as fat slows digestion and nutrient delivery. This meal should be consumed within 60 minutes of your weight training.

After Training But Before Last Protein Meal
My preference is the consumption of high quality low fat protein food source (like chicken breast, Turkey breast, etc.)  and some low glycemic carbohydrates (such as fibrous vegetables, brown rice, etc.). Consuming a whole food protein meal can also suppress the rate of muscle breakdown by starting a slow release of amino acids through your system. This meal should also include carbohydrate to stimulate the release of insulin. Insulin is also the hormone that governs protein synthesis rate. By elevating the release of insulin the rate of muscle breakdown can be slowed.

Immediately Before Bed

Eating close to bedtime is often considered taboo by most. People believe that this promotes fat storage. My personal belief is if you desire to maintain muscle mass, eating immediately prior to retiring is essential to prevent the body from using all of its stored energy during the night.  Because you will not have another meal for at least 6 hours this meal should include a slow protein which release nutrients over several hours.

About the Author  

Jeff Behar
Jeff Behar, MS, MBA
Jeff Behar, MS, MBA is a recognized health, fitness and nutrition expert, regularly writing about hot topics in the areas of health, fitness, disease prevention, nutrition, anti aging and alternative medicine. His work also often appears in several of the major health and fitness newsletters, health and fitness magazines, and on  major health, and fitness websites. Behar is also a well sought after personal trainer, motivational speaker, and weight loss expert.





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