Protein: Timing... Is it Important?

Simple nutrition guidelines usually refer to DAILY intakes...

  • daily calories

  • daily protein

  • daily fruit & veg portions

  • etc...

You then probably spread your meals and snacks out over the course of the day.

Unless you're fasting or something similar.

Breakfast - lunch - dinner is a pretty simple structure for meals.

Then snacks go in between.

Workouts might make things slightly more advanced...

  • pre-workout nutrition

  • intra-workout nutrition

  • post workout nutrition

(How does that fit in with your meal times?)

But generally speaking, most of your calories, fats, carbs etc will be spread out across the day...


Having an even spread of mealtimes doesn't necessarily mean you are getting protein into your system consistently...

What if any of those meals are low in protein?

And what if you skip meals?

To maintain a positive balance between building/maintaining muscle (rather than breaking down muscle for energy), you need to make sure that you are...

a) eating enough protein

b) and then ideally eating that protein as evenly as possible throughout the day.

c) there may then be certain times/situations where additional protein may be optimal...

The Problem With Breakfast

Again, the most important thing to remember with protein is that you meet your DAILY requirements...

But that doesn't mean that their are no advantages to being a little more sophistacted with protein timing...

Studies show that breakfast is by far the meal that is most commonly low in protein.

Let's assume that you are eating breakfast (not fasting in the mornings etc)...

A low protein meal, automatically means a relatively high proportion of calories are coming from the other macronutrients; fat, & carbohydrate (including sugar).

You immediately have 3 problems to consider;

  • you've made a significant dent in your daily calorie target (let's say 25% of total calories). But only eaten a fraction of your protein target (~5%). You're under pressure to eat relatively very high protein meals later to 'catch up'.

  • you've eaten a relatively high fat (calories) and/or carbohydrate (possible issues with blood sugar spikes/falls for the next few hours) meal.

  • you haven't eaten since your last meal yesterday. That means no protein. Your body is probably already in a catabolic state (meaning that you could be breaking down muscle tissue). You certainly aren't in an anabolic state (building muscle). Extending the lack of protein until lunch (at best) is going to make the consequences of this much worse.

None of these issues are fatal to your goals. But they don't help. And you're going to have to be extra vigilant for the rest of the day...

Frankly, you've made the day ahead far more difficult than it needed to be.

If you can include a proportionate amount of protein in your breakfast...

  • you make it easier/more likely to meet your daily requirments

  • you get a good trade-off with calories in vs satiety

  • you fill the protein gap that has already existed since your last meal yesterday

A lot of people do struggle to include protein in the morning though...

This might be an appetite issue.

Or simply a belief that the "rules" state that you can't eat certain foods for breakfast.

While it's understandable that you may feel uncomfortable cooking meats and fish for breakfast, don't take these options off the table "just because it's weird"...

They may well be the best option for you.

More common/normal options...

  • eggs

  • high protein yogurt (check the nutrition labels carefully, not just the marketing spiel on the front)

  • cheese (careful with high fat content)

  • nuts & nut butters (*see below)

  • protein powders (link)

* despite common misconceptions, nuts and nut butters themselves are not a good protein source. They contain some plant based protein (link) and a high level of (relatively healthy) fat. They make a useful addition to a meal if you need a little extra protein and/or to top up calories where necessary. But they should not be your main source of protein in any meal.

If your breakfast is low in protein, make an effort to fill this gap. Especially if your overall daily protein is low… this would be the easiest way to get the total intake up.

Keep in mind that a typical ‘Western’ diet is deficient in protein anyway… so for this reason alone, working on this common weakness would be very good idea.

Overnight Protein?

As mentioned already, you are going to have a gap between dinner and breakfast the next day, of approx’ 12 hours anyway…

And eating plenty of protein at breakfast is necessary to limit the catabolic consequences of that.

So it makes sense to help mitigate further by making sure that you have included plenty of protein in that evening meal too.

This doesn’t mean that eating protein later in the day is “better” than eating it earlier.

It just means that you’ve got something to work with during that overnight fast. So make sure that your evening meal isn't low in protein.

If that meal was low in protein, you effectively increase the catabolic window, so that it now lasts from lunch on day 1, to breakfast on day 2 (at best).


Ideally, include some protein in your pre-workout meal. This helps to make sure that you have amino acids (broken down protein) floating around in your bloodstream, ready to be delivered to muscles. This helps to ensure that...

  • you are not having to break down muscle for energy

  • proteins are in place ready to begin the repair/rebuilding process of muscle

You’ll also benefit from the satiety provided by high protein meals. The last thing you want is to feel hungry half way through a session.

If you’re training early, before breakfast, just be aware of the following…

  • not ideal in terms of energy (less energy = lower workout intensity)

  • increased chance of muscle catabolism (probably the opposite of what you're trying to achieve by doing that workout)


Two schools of thought on this…

1) Post-workout protein is "vital"… traditionally it has been considered important to eat/drink protein (and possibly carbs) as soon as possible after intense exercise. The theory is that this type of exercise (especially resistance training) creates an “anabolic window” where your body is primed to optimally digest, absorb and use protein to repair/build muscle. Typically, the post-workout window is suggested to last for approx’ 60 minutes...


2) As long as you achieve your daily nutrition targets over the course of 24 hours, you will achieve your desired results. The post-workout anabolic window is irrelevant in comparison to overall daily nutrient intake.

The truth is probably a combination of the above…

Intense exercise can prime the body and increase the need for digestion of certain nutrients.

But eating the perfect post-workout meal and then failing to follow a suitable nutriton plan for the rest of the day would be pointless.

Plus, eating extra proteins after your workout isn’t going to any harm. At worst, you are contributing to the daily requirements. In other words, you may as well do it. There may be benefits, and probably no disadvantages.

That doesn’t have to be a protein shake (although these do have benefits such as relative convenience). Just make sure you have a relatively high protein meal as soon as possible after your workout.

A bit of planning might be needed here to make sure that workouts and meal times actually match up.

Protein: Timing... Is it Important?

Yes... but not as important as eating adequate protein daily.

Timing protein intake to;

  • be steady throughout the day

  • provide protein pre-workout

  • post-workout

  • and to mitigate the inevitable overnight fast

... may help to accelerate fitness goals that rely on a healthy metabolism and/or the maintenance or building of muscle...

In other words, almost all fitness goals.

But timing protein intake 'perfectly', and then failing to meet your daily protein requirement, undoes ALL of that effort.

So if you're not already eating enough protein, focus first on getting that intake up...

And THEN you can worry about optimising timing.