The Protein Muscle Connection

While it is still important to consume protein within 1 hour of exercise to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a well-balanced diet that includes adequate protein is important all day long.  Research published by Phillips SM, Tang JE and Moore DR showed that the positive interaction that occurs between exercise, the protein we eat and the creation of muscle lasts for at least 24 hours.  Other factors including the amount, timing of protein, other nutrients consumed at the same time of the protein, type, duration and intensity of the exercise also play a role in muscle creation.

We previously reported that more protein is not better, a cup will only hold so much water, the same is true of muscle.  There is a limit to the amount of protein that stimulates muscle creation immediately after exercise.  What’s the magic number? Research by Moore DR, Robinson MJ and Fry JL published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that 20 grams is where we peak.  They showed an incremental increase in response up to 20 grams, but no differences in response between 20-40 grams. What’s that mean for you and I?  Muscle drinks don’t work.

What if you are trying to lose weight?  Several studies have shown that a low-calorie, high protein diet in combination with increased exercise may increase weight loss.  However, in most of these studies calories from protein were increased at the expense of carbohydrate calories.  Since muscles store energy in the form of carbohydrate (glycogen), this isn’t a good option for a competitive athlete.  Inadequate carbohydrate leads to early fatigue, increased risk of injury and impaired focus.  The upside?  People who maintain a low-calorie, high protein, low carbohydrate diet with exercise reduce their loss of lean body mass.  This means they lose more fat, less muscle.

What’s an athlete to do?  Reduce your calories at the expense of fat, not carbohydrates. Keep your intake of lean proteins and low-fat dairy higher in conjunction with whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, but skip the extra spreads, dressings and gravies.  Skip the fried foods, baked pastries and trips down the chip and cookie aisles and you’ll accomplish your weight loss goals, while minimizing your muscle loss.

Bottom Line?

  1. A well-balanced diet, adequate in protein is important all day long.
  2. High protein drinks are expensive with no resulting increase in muscle growth.
  3. If you are overweight and trying to lose weight, a low-calorie, high lean protein, carbohydrate rich diet that is low in fat combined with regular exercise is optimal.  Sound like a puzzle?  See a Registered Dietitian for a weekly menu sample.

Categories: Sports Nutrition

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5 replies

  1. Thanks for this well written article on protein and muscle creation. My boys are in high school and asked me to buy the protein powder. I bought one jar to satisfy their curiosity- then they lost interest. I explained that a large glass of milk and handful of nuts after water polo practice – followed by dinner will get the job done. They prefer the taste of these foods anyway!


  2. Thanks for a great example on how to give your growing children freedom to safely explore, but then provide sound alternatives.
    Here’s another post they might enjoy on the muscle protein connection


  3. I really like high protein diet because i workout a lot and do a lot of bodybuilding. Protein is really needed to build muscles. `,;’,

    Yours trully


    • Remember that progressive training is what causes the small muscle tares that result in muscle repair and growth. Repair is optimized at rest. Olympic athletes get 10 hours the week going into their events rather than eating gross amounts of protein.



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