Most people don’t worry about their protein intake because they assume they are getting enough during the day. Chances are that you follow a typical dietary pattern of a low protein breakfast and lunch, and a much higher protein supper. If you are trying to build muscle, you may be sabotaging your best efforts. In addition to how much protein you eat throughout the day, the timing of protein intake is very important!

Timing Your Protein Intake

How much protein are Canadians eating?

According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, Canadian adults get about 16% of their energy from protein. This is within the recommended range of 10-35%. To maximize the potential of protein, it is important to get enough at each meal and distribute it evenly throughout the day.

Traditional eating patterns

The typical pattern of eating is to have a low protein breakfast (for example, a bowl of cereal with milk or a piece of toast with peanut butter). Lunch usually includes a moderate intake of protein (for example, a chicken salad sandwich). Dinner tends to be the high protein meal, with a piece of meat (for example, chicken, beef or fish). This pattern of eating results in about 12 grams of protein for breakfast, 20 grams for lunch and 60 grams for dinner.

Distribute protein throughout the day

Dr. Donald Layman, Professor of Nutrition, University of Illinois, is an expert in protein research in diet and exercise. He explains that the body does not store protein; it can only use a certain amount of protein at one time or at each meal. If you don’t eat enough protein, you run out of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. Your body then has to break down muscle to make hormones, enzymes, hair, teeth and nails. In fact, every cell in your body needs protein for growth and repair. Eating protein throughout the day is better for building muscle and minimizes its breakdown.

Protein helps with snacking and cravings, too

A high-quality study from 2016 reinforced evidence that protein is more filling compared with carbohydrate and fat and that higher protein intakes increase fullness ratings more than lower protein intakes. This may help control appetite and cravings. A 2013 study found that overweight or obese women who ate a higher-protein breakfast (35 grams) had more control over food cravings and appetite during the day and reduced their evening snacking.

Aim for 20-30 grams of protein at each meal

Optimize your protein intake by spacing your meals four to six hours apart and including 20-30 grams of protein at each meal, an amount that promotes building muscle. That translates into filling one quarter of your plate with a quality protein at breakfast, lunch and supper. Meat and alternatives, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, pulses, nuts and seeds, and milk and alternatives, such as milk, yogurt, cheese and fortified soy beverage, are some of the best sources of protein.

For protein-rich breakfast ideas that contain 20 grams of protein check out these 7 High-Protein Breakfast Ideas. For other high protein food ideas with recipes, link to 15 High Protein Diet Recipes.

Use the BC Dairy Association’s Check on Protein resource to determine if your protein intake and timing is adequate.

Revised June 2017

Cindy Thorvaldson

Registered Dietitian

Cindy (MSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist at Alberta Milk. With the Nourish Move Thrive® program, Cindy believes people can Eat to Change.® She enjoys sharing the latest nutrition research and applying it with healthy food ideas.

Article posted on November 19, 2013

Active Tip

Walking 3 miles per day, 3-5 times per week, totals approximately 1000-1500 calories per week, enough to lose about 15 – 22 pounds per year.