Does your typical day’s menu look something like this: breakfast is cereal or a bagel; lunch, a sandwich, salad, or a wrap; maybe an afternoon or post workout smoothie. And, finally, dinner, which likely includes a larger portion of protein, whether from fish, poultry, or lean meat. Ours kinda does.
According to a new study, this way of eating is an upside-down approach to building lean muscle mass—one of the many benefits we look to get from our workouts. The study found that although most people throughout the West and Asia tend to consume the lowest amount of protein at breakfast, early in the day is actually the best time to fill your body’s protein needs—at breakfast, as a morning snack, or for an early lunch.
Even eating just a little bit of protein in the a.m. packs a bigger punch than eating a large amount of protein at night when it comes to building muscle, the data showed. Here’s why.
Your body builds muscle early in the day
Proteins are, of course, the body’s building blocks. They’re responsible for nearly every task our cells do, and are essential for the structure, function, and regulation of the body’s tissues and organs.
This new study out of Waseda University, a private research university outside of Tokyo, set out to investigate the effect of our body’s biological clock—or circadian rhythm—on food metabolism. Researchers found that protein digestion and absorption fluctuate throughout a normal 24-hour period. While previous studies have shown that protein intake at breakfast and lunch promotes muscle growth, the exact reason and mechanism was not understood.
This study, first conducted on lab mice and then on women aged 65 and over, showed that our circadian rhythm is in charge of our muscle growth and is why our muscles get stronger in response to what time we eat. The study’s findings, published in a recent issue of Cell Reports, emphasizes that a "protein-rich diet at an early phase of the daily active period, that is at breakfast, is important to maintain skeletal muscle health and enhance muscle volume and grip strength."
‘Chrononutrition’ is a thing
If protein <metabolism varies depending on our biological clock, then consuming the right amount of protein at the right time of day can make the most of its benefits. Researchers confirmed exactly that: when it comes to processing protein to build muscle, our circadian rhythm is geared up and ready to roll early in the day. By contrast, by the time dinner rolls around, eating a big portion of protein doesn’t matter as much, since our muscles have already had their fill to repair and rebuild.
The researchers were building on an area of science called “chrononutrition,” which explores how nutrition relates to the body’s circadian rhythm, i.e., the best times to consume foods for optimal health. Just as we know that it matters what and how much we eat, science is discovering that when we eat is important as well. While food timing has been shown to help control metabolic diseases such as diabetes even without calorie restriction, we’re now learning how healthy people can benefit too.
Supercharge your morning with any of these 5 high-protein breakfast options
No need to give up your morning bowl of cereal. Just top your oatmeal (or make your overnight oats) with ½ to ¾ cup of milk, ½ banana, 2 tbs of peanut butter and 2 tb chia seeds, for 22 grams of protein.
Scramble 2 to 3 eggs with ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese and veggies and get 18 grams of protein. Two oz of smoked salmon add 14 additional grams.
A Southwestern-style omelet (black beans, feta cheese, salsa, avocado, salt, pepper, a dash of cumin, hot sauce, and lime optional) packs a protein punch with 24 grams.
Power up your breakfast smoothie with a scoop of protein powder. Along with 1 to 2 tbs of nut butter, and a tbs of chia or ground flax seeds, that’s 20 to 30 grams of protein.
Tom Brady’s 7 a.m. smoothie is rich in protein: almond milk; almond butter; banana; Brazil nuts; pumpkin, hemp and chia seeds; blueberries; and organic plain yogurt. (We can’t even guess the grams of protein but it’s a lot.)
A typical cup of Greek yogurt has 15 to 20 grams of protein, the same as 2 to 3 oz of lean meat. Top it off with fresh fruit, a sprinkle of granola or cinnamon, or even some dark chocolate pieces.