Note: The below article is by Ben Tormey – we recommend subscribing to his website here, where he also offers affordable coaching.
This is a practical guide on how to structure your protein intake for fat loss and muscle gain. You may have seen Borge Fagerli’s excellent article on protein intake; we have to acknowledge his work, since our guidelines agree broadly with his, and it would be difficult to improve on his recommendations! The article outlines how you should time your meals (and particularly around your training), how much protein you should be eating with those meals, and what protein sources to use.
There are other fantastic resources available on the web that provide prescriptions of how to set up your diet, including prescriptions for all macro nutrients. This article from MaxNutrition provides a comprehensive summary.
Protein Intake and Sources
Choose high-quality sources of protein that are rich in essential amino acids (EAAs). You should aim for 10g+ of EAAs with every meal, which corresponds to about 25g+ of whey protein (which is approximately 50% EAAs). The most important EAA is leucine because it has a far greater stimulatory effect on skeletal muscle protein synthesis (MPS) than any other amino acid. But additional leucine in isolation of EAAs does not appear to be particularly useful: although leucine with lower doses of whey is as effective as a higher dose of whey in stimulating MPS following meals, it is actually less effective after training. Chronic leucine supplementation may even be detrimental when dieting!
Glutamine is not an EAA, your body can synthesise it from other amino acids, but there is evidence that supplemental glutamine may be useful when dieting to spare EAAs for protein synthesis (and there are a few more reasons for supplementing glutamine). However, it’s likely that a high-protein diet following the guidelines here should provide sufficient glutamine anyway.
A reasonable maximum for protein intake is 2g/kg of bodyweight. When you’re dieting for fat loss, you may need to increase this to around 2.5-3g/kg.
A literature review found that:
Rapidly absorbed amino acids despite stimulating greater protein synthesis, also stimulate greater amino acid oxidation, and hence results in a lower net protein gain, than slowly absorbed protein.
Therefore choose slowly absorbed protein sources for your meals. This is particularly important before bedtime. The only exception would be after training, when it might be beneficial to use whey to provide a significant spike in leucine levels. Before training there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to using faster digesting sources.
See Lyle McDonald’s series for an in-depth guide to protein sources, covering digestibility, quality, and amino acid profile.
Aiming for 10g+ of EAAs with each meal, you should choose serving sizes of approximately:
- 100-120g+ of beef, chicken, turkey (slightly bigger than the size of a deck of cards).
- 120g+ tuna (roughly a tin).
- 120g+ lean fish (a fillet slightly bigger than a chequebook).
- 4 or more whole eggs.
- 25g+ of whey or casein protein (a single scoop).
- 200g+ of cottage cheese (about 2/3 of a pot) or quark (usually about a single pot).
The amounts will vary depending on your bodyweight and your meal frequency.
Here’s the conclusion from a recent review paper by Aragon and Schoenfeld:
…high-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g.
Exceeding this would be have minimal detriment if any, whereas significantly under-shooting or neglecting it altogether would not maximize the anabolic response.
Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than approximately 3–4 hours, given a typical resistance training bout lasting 45–90 minutes. If protein is delivered within particularly large mixed-meals (which are inherently more anticatabolic), a case can be made for lengthening the interval to 5-6 hours.
Again, there may be additional benefit to using fast digesting protein after training, but perhaps only if your meals will fall outside that 3-4 window.
Meal Frequency and Timing
A recent study concluded that
…there is no practical upper limit to the anabolic response to protein or amino acid intake in the context of a meal.
This would indicate that meal frequency isn’t important for protein synthesis, given that you could simply eat most of your protein in one or two meals. However, this may not be optimal according to unpublished research by Stuart M. Phillips lab, which found that four meals a day was superior to both eight meals a day and two meals a day.
His team recently tested three separate groups of eight men; all consumed the same daily amount of protein, but either twice, four times or eight times per day. The four-times-a-day group had the most success, with a 30 percent higher rate of protein synthesis than the eight-times-a-day group, which in turn was slightly higher than the twice-a-day group.
Practically this could be two mixed meals before training, whey protein after training, and a meal in the evening after training and before bed.
Here’s how you might structure your meals on a typical training day when your goal is muscle gain, following a Propane Protocol style approach. Total protein intake for the day is fixed at 2g/kg.
Meal 1 – Breakfast
0.4g/kg protein, mixed meal with eggs, bacon, cheese etc. with some healthy fats and green vegetables.
Meal 2 – Lunch/Before Training
0.5g/kg protein, mixed meal with beef, venison, pork etc. with some healthy fats and green vegetables.
Meal 3 – Dinner/After Training
0.5g/kg protein, whey protein after training followed by a mixed meal with turkey, chicken, fish etc. and plenty of carbs.
Meal 4 – Before Bed
0.6g/kg protein, mixed meal with cottage cheese or another slow-digesting protein and some carbs.
- Have a large meal at night containing a substantial amount of protein, aiming for 0.6g/kg of bodyweight. Choose a slow-digesting source, like casein.
- Split protein intake evenly across 3 or 4 meals, having roughly 30-40g of protein in each meal.
- Set daily protein intake at a maximum of 1.5-2g/kg of bodyweight.
- Set daily protein intake slightly higher, at a minimum of 2-2.5g/kg of bodyweight.
- Have a meal containing high-quality protein before training and after training, aiming for 0.4-0.5g/kg of bodyweight.
- Separate those meals by no more than 3-4 hours, or 5-6 hours if they are substantial, mixed meals.
- Use fast digesting protein, like whey, after training (20-25g should be sufficient).