You may carefully watch how many calories and what type of fat you eat every day, and you may count grams of protein and carbohydrates. But even if you’re hitting all the right numbers, your diet might still be all wrong, according to new research. Here’s why…
It’s not just how much protein you consume, it’s when you eat it. If you’re like most Americans, you wait until the end of the day to eat the bulk of your protein and calories—be it a juicy steak, shrimp fra diavolo or a tofu stir fry. Muscle, though, is constantly repairing and rebuilding itself, and that requires protein. Keeping your hard-working muscles waiting for protein may be a mistake, according to new research.
In this study, researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston manipulated the diets of eight healthy adults and looked at how protein was used by the body. Each participant ate one of two different diets for seven consecutive days. Then the participants took a month-long break before eating the other diet for seven days. All meals were provided by the researchers.
Both diets provided the same amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats and calories. The difference: Most of the protein for the day was served at dinner in one of the diets. In the other, the protein was evenly spread out among breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The participants ate about 90 grams of protein each day. That’s about 50% more than the currently recommended daily dietary allowance, but it’s in line with how much protein the average American eats. (Besides, some nutritionists and researchers, including those who did this study, believe that the current recommended allowance of protein is too low.)
At the beginning and end of each seven-day diet, the participants had blood and small samples of muscle taken (via biopsy) to evaluate how well muscle responded to the different ways protein was being distributed.
The results: The muscles’ ability to incorporate protein was 25% higher when protein was evenly spaced compared with when protein was packed into dinner. No wonder. When the day’s protein is loaded into dinner, the muscles are starved of protein during the day and then, after dinner, only a portion of the consumed protein is used, leaving the excess to potentially be converted into glucose or fat—unwanted extra weight and blubber, that is. So, evenly spacing out protein helps muscles use protein more efficiently and helps keep you slimmer and trimmer.
BALANCE YOUR PROTEIN
A typical American diet includes a small amount of protein at breakfast, a larger amount at lunch and the lion’s share at dinner. For example, two waffles provides only 4.5 grams of protein for breakfast, and two slices of pizza provides only 24 grams for lunch. Meanwhile, a six-ounce steak with broccoli and brown rice packs in 55 grams of protein for dinner. Instead, consider this example of meals that distribute protein more evenly…
Breakfast: Two large scrambled eggs, a slice of toast and two turkey breakfast sausages gives you 25 grams of protein for breakfast.
Lunch: A salad with half a chicken breast provides 29 grams of protein.
Dinner: A three-ounce salmon steak served with a cup of broccoli, a half-cup of rice and a salad tops you off with another 29 grams of protein.
START AND END THE DAY RIGHT
Keep in mind that protein options, especially for breakfast, need not be fatty meats, such as bacon and sausage—or meat at all. Treat yourself to an English breakfast of baked beans, scrambled eggs and whole-grain toast…or else have a scramble of tofu mixed with quinoa and a sauté of mushrooms and broccoli…or a breakfast burrito of black beans, scrambled egg (or egg whites), cheese, avocado and salsa. Then top a lunch salad with chicken or shrimp—or go out and have the fish taco or the chickpea falafel.
When dinnertime comes, don’t go overboard with a rack of ribs. Pair a single serving of meat or poultry (about the size of a computer mouse) or fish (about the size of a checkbook) with a dark, green veggie, such as spinach or kale. It’s also a smart move to choose between-meal snacks that are protein-rich and slowly digested, such as nuts and yogurt, to keep energy up.
If your muscles get the protein they need at the start of each day and at regular intervals throughout the day, you may be better able to manage blood sugar and weight because your body will use protein more efficiently instead of converting what had been dinner’s excess into fat.