• Dr Emma Derbyshire

Protein Consumption: Is it all in the Timing?

Protein is an important component of a healthy diet and it is well established that daily protein intakes are important for sustaining muscular strength and mass. Now, there is growing science implying that the ‘timing’ of protein consumption could be important too. In many scientific studies this concept is referred to as ‘protein distribution’.

Given this growing body of science there is a new pool of thought that protein intake on a ‘per-meal’ basis that should be considered rather than focusing on daily intakes alone. Here we discuss some of the latest science…

Teens Eat Protein Too Late

A study on protein and energy intakes of 2532 children and teenagers (4-18 years) provided 24-hour dietary recalls as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This study has highlighted that amongst those aged 14-18 years 20% had their first eating occasion after 11am and 34% had their last eating occasion at 9pm.

There now needs to be further clinical studies to assess whether skewed protein intakes towards the midday and evenings has any potential ramifications on health outcomes, particularly those relating to metabolic dysfunction in teenagers.

Sarcopenia Prevention

Ageing is associated with sarcopenia, which is a decline in skeletal muscle mass and function, which has a negative result on musculoskeletal health and increases the risk of losing physical independence for the elderly. Protein consumption produces a muscle protein synthetic response; however, this response is diminished in the elderly. Therefore, optimisation of dietary protein to maximize the muscle protein synthetic response is now keenly under investigation.

Some other work has monitored protein distribution in older adults. Research at the University of Birmingham found that average protein intakes were 1.14 g/kg-1/day1 amongst 38 subjects with a mean age of 78 years. Unfortunately distribution within meals was uneven with 79% reporting <0.4 g/kg-day protein content in at least 2/3 daily meals. It was concluded that this could pose a risk factor for sarcopenia.

Move over Cocoa

A recent review in Frontiers of Nutrition has investigated the impact of consuming protein before going to sleep and the effect this has on skeletal muscle’s adaptive response to exercise. It was discovered that protein consumed before sleep is more easily digested and absorbed overnight, thus increasing overnight muscle protein synthesis.

Such work found no effect on sleep onset latency, sleep quality, and next morning appetite. Therefore, protein consumption before sleep could be a useful tool in helping to preserve muscle mass, particularly in the elderly, especially when combined with physical activity. Ongoing research is now needed.


Research is beginning to show an intrinsic link between the timing of protein consumption and health. In particular, protein consumption before going to sleep could be an effective approach to increase muscle protein synthesis rates overnight. Ongoing research is required but these logical findings appear to show promise, particularly as a potential tool to help prevent sarcopenia.


Derbyshire E et al. (2019). Protein White Paper. Protein Guidelines: Why the Time is Right for an Update.

Snijders T et al. (2019). The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update. Front Nutr. Mar 6; 6:17.

Cardon-Thomas DK et al. (2017). Dietary Protein in Older Adults: Adequate Daily Intake but Potential for Improved Distribution. Nutrients 9(3).

Mathias KC et al. (2017). Protein and Energy Intakes Are Skewed toward the Evening among Children and Adolescents in the United States: NHANES 2013-2014. J Nutr 147(6):1160-66.

Arentson-Lantz E et al. (2015). Protein: A nutrient in focus. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 40(8):755-61.

This work was supported by Marlow Foods. The content of the insight has been written independently.