When It Comes to Protein, It’s Not Just about Quantity—Timing Matters

When is the best time to eat protein?

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

If you’re like most people, you probably get the bulk of your daily protein intake at dinner. According to Professor Ormsbee, this might not be the most effective approach. Here’s why.

Dinner plate with time made of fork and knife
Eating consistent amounts of protein throughout the day is better than eating most of the day’s protein at dinnertime. Photo by ANDRANIK HAKOBYAN / Shutterstock

When to Eat Protein

When you start incorporating more protein into your diet, if you want to experience optimal health benefits, it’s important to know not only how much protein you should eat, but also when and at what frequency you should eat protein. This concept is called nutrient timing. 

First, consider when you want to eat protein. For example, if you like breakfast or late-night snacks, then eating at those times will probably help you stick to your plan. However, the food you pick and eat at those times will make the difference in how your body ultimately stores the energy.

How should your daily protein needs be split up over a day for the best results? Eating about 20 grams (g) of protein per meal spaced evenly throughout the day is commonly recommended. 

Conclusions from research are mixed, though. Research shows that older individuals typically consume about 8 g of protein at breakfast, 12 g at lunch, and a maximum of 40 g at dinner. 

This type of spread of protein is considered protein back-loading, and it is very common. However, for optimal results, it seems that the dose of protein should be spaced more evenly throughout the day in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, or muscle growth. 

Protein Frequency

In overweight and obese older individuals, evenly spaced protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis significantly more effectively than this back-loaded practice. Interestingly, when resistance training is added, muscle protein synthesis normalized no matter how they ate their protein. Resistance training improves how we respond to eating, back-loaded or not.

“A study that I worked on showed that a higher protein diet—35% of total calorie intake—spaced across six meals per day significantly reduced body fat and abdominal fat,” Professor Ormsbee said. “And lean mass remained higher compared to the same amount of protein eaten over three meals per day.”

When compared to a more common and lower protein intake—like 15%—the high protein, eaten more frequently approach was also better for body composition and metabolism. Thus, if you can spike your protein synthesis on more than one occasion in a day, you will probably have a better net effect at the end of the day than only spiking your muscle protein synthesis at one meal where you eat all of your daily protein.

However, many people simply don’t like eating frequently. It can be a hassle and take too much time. 

According to Professor Ormsbee, you can also achieve your desired results eating less frequently. You just need to be sure that when you do eat, you’re eating nutrient-dense foods with high-quality protein. 

Protein before Bed

Another time of day that people often want to eat is before bed. Perhaps you find yourself hungry before bed, but resist because you believe that it’s not a healthy habit. 

However, it may actually be good for you to eat a small protein snack or drink a protein shake right before bed. When young and older men were given 40 g of casein protein before bed, their muscle protein synthesis was significantly higher overnight than when they drank a no-calorie drink. 

Although older men have lower rates of muscle protein synthesis than young men, both age groups had an increase in muscle protein synthesis when taking a protein shake before bed. How do other macronutrients and forms of protein eaten before bed—besides casein—affect metabolism and health?

“Interestingly, a study from our lab showed in young, active men—whether eating a carbohydrate, whey protein, or casein protein snack before bed that had about 140–150 calories in total—resting energy expenditure the next day was increased compared to eating nothing at night before bed,” Professor Ormsbee said. 

However, when they did a similar study in obese women, their next morning resting metabolic rate had a more favorable increase if protein was consumed before sleep than with carbohydrates. The difference was small, but the pattern showed that the effect of a nighttime snack on next day resting metabolic rate was influenced by the sex, age, and fitness level of the person in the study.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 298 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.