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Researchers find we're eating too much protein at the wrong times—

and not enough at the right times.

Protein intake and timing are perennially hot topics. Carbs have been demonized. Fat has been on the chopping block. But protein? It earns a health halo, often connected to everything from weight loss to muscle gains. Maybe this is for good reason. After all, researchers and protein experts around the world are investigating protein’s optimal role in aging and satiety across the lifespan. Yet that doesn’t mean our diets get protein right. Researchers find we’re eating too much protein at the wrong times—and not enough at the right times. Namely, we need more high-quality protein intake at breakfast and less protein at dinner, the research suggests (Mamerow et al. 2014).

Protein: How Much Is Enough?

Nutrition experts recommend that protein accounts for 10%–35% of all the calories we eat daily. How are we doing with that recommendation? A paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, on average, men and women up to age 70 get about 15% of total calories from protein. While that is within the 10%–35% recommendation, the author of the paper suggests boosting the minimum to 25%, “given the positive benefits of higher protein intake on satiety and other physiologic functions”.

Examining diet in more depth exposes us to a raft of acronyms representing how much of specific nutrients the experts say we should consume. For instance, the Institute of Medicine has several DRIs (dietary reference intakes) for protein:

  • RDA (recommended dietary allowance)

  • EAR (estimated average requirement)

  • AI (adequate intake)

All these DRIs are based on nitrogen balance studies, under conditions of energy balance (DGAC 2010; Rodriguez 2015).

The most familiar of these acronyms is the RDA—which for protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight for adults 19 and older. Protein experts like Stewart Phillips, PhD, FACSM, FACN, professor at McMaster University, suggest this level can be misleading.

“That level of protein—0.8 g/kg/d or the RDA—is the minimal level of protein to offset negative nitrogen balance in 98% of individuals. The RDA is really, in my opinion, the MDI—minimal dietary intake. Thus, nothing about that level should be recommended, and you’re allowed to eat much more. In fact, for older persons and athletes, there are benefits to consuming protein at levels above the RDA.”

Protein Intake and Timing

Recently, protein research has moved beyond investigating the optimal amount of protein to eat and has examined the optimal times to eat it. Nutrition researchers have found that most Western diets skew protein intake toward the evening meal—breakfast is typically carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor, while the evening meal is often much higher in protein and calories.