New research shows that if you only eat a little bit of protein at a couple of meals, you can't make up for it by eating more at another meal.
The average person's daily protein intake is screwed up. So is the average lifter's and I think I know how it happened. It's all because of chicken eggs.
A couple of years ago, I went on vacation to a small island in French Polynesia. Every morning, the Polynesians would put together an impressive breakfast buffet featuring foods to fit the dietary preferences of nearly every culture that had the good sense to visit the place.
It was there that it struck me that the whole damn world depends on eggs as their source of protein at breakfast.
Sure, we Americans often eat ours with a couple of slices of bacon, the Japanese might enjoy theirs with a little Sumōkusāmon (smoked salmon), and the Germans are known to eat theirs alongside some high-calorie Schwarzwaelderschinken (Black Forest ham) – most of which can probably be burned off just by saying Schwarzwaelderschinken out loud a couple of times – but it's still eggs that provide most of the world's morning protein.
We can probably blame this on a cookbook written in 1669. It was in its pages that Sir Kenelm Digby Knight, chancellor to Queen Henrietta Maria of France, recommended eating "two new-laid eggs for breakfast."
Eating eggs for breakfast gradually became fairly common, but it wasn't until the 1800s that breakfast itself really became a thing. All those exploited Industrial Age workers needed to fuel up with heavy breakfasts and eggs were a cheaper alternative to meat.
And so the custom took hold and lingered to the present day, and that's exactly what it is: a custom. There's no earthly reason why breakfast has to look different than dinner, but it does. The problem is that this custom has left us with few alternative protein choices for breakfast. It's because of that lack of dietary breakfast alternatives that the protein intake of most people is lopsided.
We end up eating a meager amount of protein at breakfast (if we don't skip the meal entirely) because most people eat just one or two eggs; that's the standard serving size dictated long ago by cholesterol scolds, even though several studies have exonerated their supposed role in heart disease.
But two eggs only provide a duck snort of protein; hardly enough to fuel muscle growth. And while we do better at lunch, we still eat the bulk of our protein at dinner, where we try to make up for the day's protein shortcomings by devouring half of Milo's bull and saving the other half for a late evening snack.
It might not be a big deal if regular folk follow this kind of unbalanced protein intake, but it could be damaging to lifters who measure their success by how much muscle they can grow – at least that's the conclusion of some Japanese researchers.
The scientists found that young men whose protein intake was asymmetrical – who took in more protein at dinner than at breakfast and lunch – had less muscle protein synthesis over those who had roughly proportional amounts of protein for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, even if the total daily protein intake was equal between the two groups.
What They Did
It was a simple study. The Japanese scientists took 26 male students and divided them into two groups. One group received three daily meals, each of which contained roughly the same amount of protein. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they ate meals that contained 0.33, 0.46, and 0.48 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, respectively. This was the high-protein breakfast group.
The other group also got three-square, taking in 0.12, 0.45, and 0.83 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, respectively. This was the low-protein breakfast group and it reflected the societal habit of skewing most protein intake towards dinner.
Regardless of the group they were in, each subject ingested 1.3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. The main difference in the diets was that the high-protein breakfast group drank a protein drink with their breakfast and the low-protein group didn't.
The experiment lasted 12 weeks and all the subjects were required to lift weights three times a week for the duration.
What They Found
The high-protein breakfast group put on over 40% more muscle than the low-protein breakfast group. There wasn't much of a difference in their pre- and post-1RM values, but the high-protein breakfast group tended to have a higher percentage change in their leg extension strength.
Despite there being no significant difference in the total daily protein intake between the two groups, eating disproportionate amounts of protein (low protein) at breakfast and lunch, but especially breakfast, adversely affected muscle protein synthesis, regardless of total daily protein intake.
The scientists concluded their paper with this recommendation:
"To maximize muscle accretion with resistance training, not only daily total protein intake but also protein intake at each meal, especially at breakfast, should be considered."
How to Use This Info
If you got a number of strength-training or nutrition experts to guess what the results of this study might have been before they even conducted it, a lot of them might have guessed right – that protein intake should be more or less evenly distributed through the day.
Even so, most of them probably wouldn't have guessed the magnitude of the difference. More importantly, it adds to the growing flapjack-stack of evidence supporting the importance of breakfast in general.
People who eat smart breakfasts are generally in better shape than those who don't. They're generally more insulin sensitive and they don't store as much of what they eat as fat.
At the very least, this study ought to put a stranglehold into the practice of having "bulletproof coffee" for breakfast. Not only does this stupid drink actually make you fatter, muck up your blood lipids, and make you unhealthier in general, we now know, thanks to this study, that it'll likely screw up your muscle-building efforts. (The damn stuff, as it's commonly concocted with butter and MCT oil, contains virtually no protein.)
So the fix for this asymmetrical daily protein intake is breathtakingly simple. You can add more eggs to your breakfast, the old-school cholesterol scolds be damned. You can be a rebel and turn hundreds of years of dietary custom on its head and eat steak or Schwarzwaelderschinken for breakfast instead of a couple of eggs.
Or lastly, you can simply do what the subjects in the study did: Add a scoop or two of protein powder to your breakfast.
You can add it to the water, juice, or even coffee you use to wash down your eggs. If you're using a powder that tastes really good and mixes well like Metabolic Drive® Protein you can flavor-up your bland oatmeal with a scoop or two.
You can mix it in the milk that you pour on your Frosty Pebbles. You can mix it in your pancake batter or you can channel protein powder magician Dani Shugart and whip up some non-sugar protein oat cakes the night before.
Look at it this way: If the results of this first-of-its-kind study hold up, failing to balance your daily protein intake over the day is probably the muscle-building or, rather, the muscle-losing equivalent, of missing a workout or two a week.
And that's practically criminal, given how easy of a fix it is.
- Jun Yasudea, et al, "Evenly Distributed Protein Intake over 3 Meals Augments Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in Healthy Young Men," The Journal of Nutrition, 2020, April 22.