We all want to build lean muscle tone from the workouts we do at the gym, and we know that protein is a key macronutrient to help us do it. But what is the best time to eat or drink protein to get the best results? Now a new study tells us exactly when to eat protein if getting lean and strengthening our muscles is the goal. Not only is there a best time of day to eat protein but when it comes to muscle growth, it turns out that when you should eat protein matters.

The new study is just the latest research into the importance of timing when to eat protein. It turns out that our bodies metabolize different macronutrients better at different times of the day.

The recent findings lend more credence to the idea that the timing of food and macronutrients is important, especially when it comes to building lean muscle mass.

This new study appears to answer the question once and for all: When is the best time to eat protein? The evidence shows that consuming protein earlier in the day, for breakfast or an early snack, is the key to creating lean muscle mass. Even eating less protein in the am is more beneficial than more protein at night, the data indicated. Here's why.

What is protein and how do we get it

First, protein is one of three macronutrients your body needs: Carbs, fat, and protein. Protein is a building block found in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every organ or part of the body. It helps your cells regenerate and your blood carries oxygen. Because there are 21 amino acids that create protein and our body only can make 12 of them, which means the other nine have to be supplied by food.

These nine that we don't make in our own bodies are the so-called "essential amino acids," and not all protein-rich foods contain all nine, so you need to eat combinations (such as rice and beans) to gain the full spectrum of aminos your body needs to build muscle and function optimally.. The foods that do contain all nine essential amino acids are called "complete" proteins. (The nine essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.)

The best plant sources of protein are complete proteins such as soy and soy products. But even if you focus on the protein-rich foods that don't contain all nine essential amino acids, such as legumes, it's possible to get all the protein you need on a plant-based diet. Studies have shown that athletes eating high-protein vegan diets are able to build muscle, strength, and endurance as well as those who eat meat and dairy.

For the best plant-based sources of protein read this. Even without supplementing, nutritionists help athletes get all the protein they need to train and gain strength and endurance and stay healthy from plant-based foods.

Read More: The Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein According to a Nutritionist.

If you choose to supplement with protein powders, there are excellent clean protein products on the market that are made of pea protein, hemp protein and a blend of plant-based proteins. For the best protein powders, tasted and put to the test, see this review of the best protein powders. 

If you prefer a premade protein shake, there are plenty that are plant-based and delicious. Check out The Beet's guide. to The 6 Best Protein Shakes. Whether you prefer a protein bar, shake, powder, or whole food snack, previous research has shown that eating your protein snack within two hours or your workout helps resupply the muscles with the amino acids they need to build back and repair the micro damage done during a workout.

Protein is essential for muscle building and healthy cell function

As far as the time of day to eat protein, the latest research tells us that morning is best. Here is what the findings revelaed.

"Protein metabolism varies depending on the body's internal biological clock," according to researchers at Waseda University, a private research university outside of Tokyo. The consumption of protein at breakfast appears to work best to "increase muscle size and function in both mice and humans" they found. This specific area of study is called 'Chrononutrition,' since it explores the best times to consume food for optimal health.

So your usual breakfast choice of cereal, or a bagel, then lunch of a sandwich or wrap, or salad and then a dinner of high protein food is an upside-down approach to building healthy muscle, since your circadian rhythm is ready to build muscle early in the day, according to these scientists. It's optimal to eat more protein early in the day, at breakfast, an early snack, or for early lunch, while by the time dinner rolls around, it doesn't matter as much, since the muscles have had their fill of energy to repair and rebuild, making dinner a chance to "top off" the body's energy supplies before going to sleep and getting up to head to the gym the next day.

When to eat protein, according to the latest research

The study at Waseda, led by Professor Shigenobu Shibata, set out to investigate the effect of your inner biological clock–or circadian rhythm–on food metabolism and found that protein digestion and absorption fluctuate throughout a normal 24-hour period. While prior studies have indicated that protein intake at breakfast and lunch promotes muscle growth, the exact reason and mechanism remained unknown.

In the study, laboratory mice were fed two meals per day containing either high protein (defined as 11.5 percent of the calories) or low protein (of 8.5 percent of the total calories). The mice that ate more protein at breakfast showed increased muscle growth, compared with the mice that ate higher levels of protein for dinner. Even mice fed a lower protein portion (of 8.5 percent) at breakfast had 17.5 percent more muscle growth than mice fed a higher ratio of protein (of 11.5 percent) at dinner. Additionally, the mice fed branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, at breakfast had even more muscle growth.

The researchers figured out that the driver of this was the animals' circadian clock, since they tried the exact same experiment on mice with no such body clock, and the protein intake in the morning did not lead to the same results. So our circadian rhythm is in control of our muscle growth and is the reason our muscles get stronger in response to what time we eat.

Eating more protein early in the day (at breakfast or lunchtime) could also help older people maintain muscle mass with advancing age–but most people eat proteins fairly unevenly throughout the day, another recent study has found.

"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," said Professor Shibata, quoted in the academic journal Cell Reports.

Humans benefit from early protein intake

The same researchers then copied this experiment on 60 women aged 65 and over again proving that morning protein was optimal for muscle function, which they measured in grip strength. There is "a strong association" between grip strength and how much protein the women ate for breakfast, relative to their total protein consumption, the study found.

Professor Shibata explained that he hopes this work will have an impact on everyday dietary choices and timing, especially in the West and Asian countries, where people traditionally consume less protein at breakfast. "For humans, in general, protein intake at breakfast averages about 15 grams, which is less than what we consume at dinner, which is roughly 28 grams," he points out. "Our findings strongly support changing this norm and consuming more protein at breakfast or morning snacking time."

How much protein do you really need to build muscle?

You don't need as much protein as you might think to build muscle, and in general, we get more than we need in a day, according to studies.

In fact, Americans get more of everything than we need, and once your muscles and liver are full of energy, every extra calorie we eat, whether it is protein, fat, or carbs, gets stored as fat, according to experts. One study found that excess protein has adverse effects on the body, including promoting weight gain.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you consume no more than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight or .35 grams per pound of body weight per day to maintain the body composition you have now. So a person that weighs 165 pounds (75 kgs) should consume about 60 grams of protein per day. Protein contains 4 calories per gram so that means eating 240 calories in protein a day. You can get this from your diet, without the need to supplement, which can create protein overload.

A recent study found that plant-based protein works just as well as whey does in building muscle. The reason people think that plant-based proteins are not as good as animal proteins is that they are not complete proteins, since they are missing one or more amino acid building blocks.

The counterargument is that your body knows how to combine two incomplete proteins into a complete protein, as long as both proteins are eaten within a 24-hour window, according to research.

The Best High-Protein Vegan Foods to Eat for Breakfast or Early Snack

Check out six other surprising foods that can help you get more plant-based protein.

Bottom Line: The best time to eat protein is early in the day.

If you are hoping to build strong muscles and get lean from your workouts, try focusing on eating high-protein vegan foods earlier in the day, studies now say.

For more great expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles

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