Protein: It’s All in the Distribution


Beans are a source of protein for vegetarians. (Small)By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Protein is always a hot topic, but most articles focus on how much an athlete should eat during the day, or when they should eat it to best recover or build muscle.

As I describe in my book, Eat Like a Champion, protein is a nutrient that is well received and best utilized by the body when it appears regularly throughout the day.

Consider these scenarios:

Protein illustration. (Small)Jake, a 16-year-old swimmer, has an egg, cheese and ham bagel (~25 grams of protein) after his early morning practice. At school, he snacks on crackers and fruit (~5 g), opts for soup, a roll and chips (~9 g) for lunch, eats a granola bar and juice (5 g) before practice, and at dinner he eats a large steak, baked potato with the works, 3 glasses of milk and a small salad (~85 g).

Protein assessment: Jake is off to a good start, but his protein intake plummets mid-day, he forgets to eat recovery protein, and loads most of his protein intake at night.
Protein illustration, small.
His buddy, Mark, also 16-years-old, eats the same sandwich after practice (~25 g). During school, he has a chicken Caesar wrap and some soup (~35 g). Before swim practice in the afternoon, Mark eats a snack of a mini bagel with peanut butter and a banana (~12 g). After practice, he drinks 10 ounces of chocolate milk (10 g) and heads home for a dinner of shredded chicken and cheese enchiladas with rice and beans (~45 g).

Protein assessment: Mark’s protein intake is fairly evenly distributed throughout the day.

What the research says

Most of the research in protein distribution has been conducted in adults, but the results give us some interesting points to consider.

In a 2012 study of 24 adult males who regularly participated in intense resistance training, Moore and colleagues tested the effects of protein-eating patterns on the subjects’ whole body protein metabolism. The athletes were given 80 grams of protein in the form of whey protein isolate, dispersed in 8 feedings of 10 grams every 1.5 hours; or 4 feedings of 20 grams every 3 hours; or 2 feedings of 40 grams twice during the day. 

The researchers found that eating moderate amounts of protein (~20 grams) at regular intervals of about every 3 hours throughout the day yielded a greater protein balance. Translated: evenly spaced protein during the day led to better protein balance in the body.

Better protein balance in the body means improved ability at muscle recovery and muscle growth.

Another 2014 study by Mamerow and colleagues showed similar results in healthy women and men. When approximately 30 grams of protein was consumed at each of three meals throughout the day, protein synthesis rate was 25% higher than skewing protein consumption toward the dinner meal (skewed protein intake was 10 grams of protein at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch, and 65 grams at dinner).

Another researcher, Dr. Stuart Phillips, has looked at protein needs for muscle building in adult athletes. He concludes that about 0.25-0.3 grams of protein per kilogram per meal provided in four, evenly-spaced meals throughout the day yields the best results for muscle building. He also suggests a 5th meal before bedtime containing a bit more protein (0.6 grams per kilogram) to promote maximal amounts of muscle growth.

Here’s what this looks like: 

150-pound woman: 17-20 grams of protein at each of 4 meals; 40 grams protein at pre-bedtime 5th meal
185-pound man: 21-25 grams of protein at each of 4 meals; 50 grams of protein at pre-bedtime 5th meal


What we can learn for the young swimmer

Although this intriguing research takes place in adults, young swimmers can learn some good tidbits for their daily nutrition approach. Mostly, the inherent structure that goes with eating protein evenly throughout the day (such as at meals and snacks) is good for growth, meeting nutritional requirements, and matching the calorie and nutrient demands of swimming. Consistency in eating patterns and nutrient distribution yields the best results in performance and health.

Additionally, other studies in non-athlete youth support the addition of protein to meals and snacks. Doing so has shown important benefits: regulation of appetite by promoting a sense of fullness, availability of amino acids to promote and sustain general growth, and a role for healthy weight maintenance.

The good news? Young athletes have been shown to get plenty of protein in their diet—without even putting much thought into it. The bad news is that they also tend to backload protein, getting the majority of this nutrient at the end of the day, similar to Jake in the above example.

Making the shift to space protein evenly throughout the day at meal and snacks may help young swimmers gear up for optimal body and muscle growth, as well as better health.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at www.JillCastle.com