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The best time of day to eat protein might not be after your exercise — here’s why. 

In the fitness world, most people prioritise their post-workout protein. The belief is that a protein shake after strength training will help you to build the biggest and strongest muscles. While it’s true that your body needs the protein to repair exercise-induced damage, new research would suggest that after your lifting session isn’t always the most efficient time to down your whey.

The paper, published in July 2021 by the journal Cell Reports, found that it’s actually best to get your protein in early in the morning – especially if muscle growth is your goal. Combining a number of studies on both mice and humans, researchers compared whether high-protein meals eaten early in the day or late in the day had an impact on muscle hypertrophy, muscle growth and overall protein synthesis. They found that having protein between 5am-10am increases hypertrophy and improves muscle function. 

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According to Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist who discussed the research on the latest episode of his podcast Huberman Lab, it’s all to do with our circadian rhythms. Each of our cells – including muscle fibres – are set by ‘clocks’ and change the way they process over 24-hours. One of those changes includes the way they synthesise proteins.

“When you wake up in the morning, assuming you’re following a standard schedule being asleep at night and awake during the day, your muscle cells are primed to incorporate amino acids and synthesise muscle, regardless of whether or not you weight train in the morning, you weight train at night or you don’t weight train at all,” explains Dr Huberman.  

Yep, it seems that getting morning protein is even more important than getting post-workout protein. “Training is known to increase protein synthesis, so it stands to reason that adjusting amino acids after that training will be beneficial. However, in this study, it did not seem to matter when the resistance training fell within the 24-hour schedule. The morning ingestion or early day ingestion of amino acids [always] seems to be beneficial,” Dr Huberman explained. 

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Does this mean that you shouldn’t be eating protein in the afternoon or evening? No, of course not. It just means that if you are keen to maintain or grow muscle mass, you should prioritise your morning intake of quality proteins. 

If you are someone who follows intermittent fasting, you might want to consider moving your eating period forward so that you get your protein before 10am, or those who just grab a cereal bar or overnight oats as they run out of the door should consider also having a protein shake to go alongside it.

“Maintaining muscle, regardless of one’s athletic prowess and regardless of one’s age, is extremely important because the loss of skeletal muscle is one of the major causes of injury as we age. It’s also one of the major causes of cognitive and metabolic deficits as we age,” Dr Huberman reminds. Take that as your excuse to find time for an eggy breakfast or protein pancake from now on. 

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Images: Getty

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