Protein Series Part II: Strategic Timing

Once you're confident in the amount of protein you'll consume, the next step is meal planning. How many meals; will they each contain protein; how much protein per meal? I think most of us are still influenced by the eat-every-three-hours mantra with protein as the centerpiece.
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Meal Planning Strategies

Once you're confident in the amount of protein you'll consume, the next step is meal planning. How many meals; will they each contain protein; how much protein per meal? I think most of us are still influenced by the eat-every-three-hours mantra with protein as the centerpiece. Or, maybe by now you've tried intermittent fasting. Congratulations on being open-minded -- that one's a tough sell. If you search the most contemporary research, you'll find studies to support virtually any extreme. There actually is a lot of flexibility in how you can format your protein intake to achieve your goals, so let's explore!

The Experts Weigh In: Round One Goes to Precision Timing

One of the biggest bites ever taken out of the meal frequency question was by physiology researchers Drs. John Ivy and Robert Portman. Their book Nutrient Timing (2004) is a thorough discourse on performance and recovery findings with lab athletes. Ivy and Portman studied different sources, amounts, and timed feedings of key nutrients. They were the forces behind the "anabolic window" (sometimes called the metabolic window), purporting that instant, substantial nutrient flooding post-workout is helpful due to hormonal responses. Ivy and Portman worked primarily with performance, strength, and physique athletes in the realm of recovery, but there is cross-over application to the general population. Their methodology was dogma until recently; now others have conducted research challenging the necessity of rigid meal timing.


Before I bring in other players for the debate, let's look at anatomy and physiology from a larger perspective -- genetics. How much muscle tissue does a steer carry on its grass-eating frame? The answer is 600 pounds and up. How about a hippopotamus, or even a really, really big salad-eating beast like a brontosaurus? Wouldn't 15 to 20 tons of muscle be nice? Not a high percentage of protein or precision meal timing in those diets. Maybe some points for grazing, though -- one particular meal-formatting strategy.

Some of my science friends just had a stroke -- let's give them a minute to regroup. Correlation is not causation. If you've endured one semester of college, you've likely tattooed that on your brain as a defense against any hypothesis you don't like. The massive herbivores I mentioned do eat a substantial amount of protein by sheer volume, but it's a tiny percent of calories -- it's still just mulch. Genetics. Our maximum muscle capacity is predetermined in the DNA lottery. Argue with me; go ahead.

Training Is the Driver

The second biggest factor is training. Cows. Hippos. Dinos. They could all be fed more protein, but would that alone make them more muscular? Only to the extent their normal activities produce a training response. So, the answer is truly no. But, what if we created a real training response? Without any changes in nutrition, you would see positive adaptive muscle response. Because of the training. Undoubtedly, nutrition upgrades would enhance both training and recovery... better nutrition alone: not a lot of physiological gain. Better training alone: a great boost in the right direction. Optimal nutrition and training? Now we're in fifth gear.

Round Two: The Flexibility Crowd

That leads us back to tactical nutrition. Those who counter the importance of meal timing often cite research that shows total protein utilization, overall assimilation rates, or other mechanical aspects of amino acid uptake. They don't often take the time to contrast the same subjects undergoing different stimuli for extended periods of time. That's not a failure of the study parameters; one project can't test every scenario and variable. But it creates a bottleneck regarding minimum protein needs or the fact that any timing strategy allows protein utilization when it's available. Conclusions often state there isn't much difference as long as total intake reaches a specific threshold. However, that doesn't necessarily show the best method(s) for performance, growth, recovery, or even weight-loss goals.

And, by Knockout, It's... Metabolic Contextualism?

Don't steal that term -- I'm going to create a philosophy or religion around it, right next to Absurdism or Existentialism. Studies show that even 10 grams of protein is sufficient to create an anabolic upturn in potential recovery, but 20 to 40 grams of protein maximizes this threshold. Counter opinions are largely contextual. If I just crushed 600 calories in an hour of grueling training, or haven't eaten in 6 hours, would 50 grams be wasted? Since metabolic activity is heightened, or amino acid need is sensitized, the tipping point of 20ish grams might not be held for long. Amino acid levels in the blood stream, available to muscle tissue, might be depleted sooner than normal, and a larger amount of protein in the gut could be beneficial.

That begs the question, what about times of rest, or low metabolic activity? Could we go longer between meals without hindering recovery? Perhaps there isn't a perfect eat-this-much-every-meal metric, or optimal meal pattern. Of course. But that makes nutrition dynamic, and minute-by-minute needs somewhat of a self-study. A guess? At least an educated guess? It's never a guess if application is based on known science; it's simply a bit of a moving target. We're back to having to use our brains instead of relying on a formulaic fantasy.

Similar to the contextual need for protein, consider the digestibility of different forms of protein. A typical 20 or 25 grams of protein powder used for study purposes is substantially predictable. Peak blood nitrogen levels often top out around the 90-minute mark, and return to baseline within 3 hours. Voila -- eat every three hours! Not exactly. We need to slice through a couple more variables to hit that moving target. That's exactly what we'll do in Part III. Ready, aim...