9 October 2012 Protein Needs for Muscle Growth

Guest Post for MyNetDiary by Jacque Maldonado MS, RD, CDE

Building muscle can seem like the Holy Grail for both athletes and people working on weight loss. The first and most essential ingredient is resistance training, also known as weight lifting, at least twice a week. Mix in a regular routine of cardiovascular exercise that includes some days of increased intensity. Fold in a recovery day and plenty of high quality sleep, and muscles receive the signals and rest needed to build up or at least not break down during weight loss.

The nutritional ingredients to support muscle growth have been more controversial with much debate around the role of protein. Body builders often consume excessive quantities, while dieters may consume too little protein in an effort to keep calories in check. The truth regarding the right amount of protein may fall in the middle of these extremes.

Recent research evaluating the role of protein in muscle synthesis (a.k.a. growth) has revealed keys that athletes and dieters can easily apply:

  1. Consume protein in the morning. After sleeping, over-night protein levels are at a low such that muscle breakdown is more likely to occur than muscle synthesis. An easy fix is to consume protein in the morning and this may be especially important for individuals who exercise at this time. Easy ways to add protein to breakfast include: hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, or a milk based smoothie.
  2. Include protein in every meal and spread protein evenly throughout the day. Muscle, like other tissues in the body, is constantly changing – building up or breaking down. Consuming balanced meals on a regular schedule is associated with more muscle growth than irregularly spaced or lower protein meals.
  3. Consume 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes after resistance training or strenuous exercise. A recent study on healthy males showed 20 grams of protein after exercise was the optimal dose with little additional benefit at higher doses. Men over 72 years of age needed 40 grams to enhance muscle synthesis. Muscles also need carbohydrate after strenuous exercise so choose a carbohydrate + protein recovery snack like a fruit and yogurt smoothie.
  4. Protein source does matter with whey protein from milk showing the best results. Whey protein is easily digested and contains all essential amino acids needed for muscle growth. Also milk is a good source of the amino acid leucine thought to be a preferred ingredient for muscle synthesis. Other good sources of leucine include tuna, soybeans, lentils, beef and salmon.
  5. Keep protein intake high while reducing calories for weight loss. The IDEAL for Women Study (Improving Diet, Exercise And Lifestyle) showed that women on a low calorie diet (750cal/day deficit) were able to gain muscle mass and lose fat on a diet that was high in protein coming from dairy. Women consuming 30% of calories from protein and 1700 mg Calcium had muscle gains; while women consuming 15% of calories from protein and 1100 mg Calcium, lost muscle mass. All study groups did 5 days of aerobic exercise and 2 days of light weights. The high protein from dairy group also had significant increases in strength.

The bottom line: both athletes and people on weight loss diets will be more likely to maintain or gain muscle mass by keeping protein intake well above the RDA while engaging in resistance training at least twice a week. Healthy people without kidney disease should strive for intakes of .6-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, so for a 150 pound person: 90-120 grams/day. Many people consume this amount or more from food, so don't assume you need to add protein powders, shakes and supplements. Protein supplements may be helpful for people who follow vegetarian lifestyles or have other dietary restrictions. Here is an example of how to consume 100 grams of protein/day: 2 eggs, 8 oz cup milk, 8 oz Greek yogurt, 3 oz chicken breast, 1/2 cup cottage cheese, 1 cup black bean soup, 3 oz tuna. Keep in mind, grains and vegetables contain small amount of protein too so even eating 75% of the example above plus whole grain, vegetables and fruits will provide adequate protein for muscle growth.

Jacque Maldonado MS, RD, CDE

Registered Dietitian specializing in Sports Nutrition and USA Triathlon Certified Coach – Level 1

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Exercise/Fueling for ExerciseExercise/Weight resistance Nutrients/Protein

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