A study suggests that eating high quality protein at regular intervals can aid everything from fitness levels to weight loss. Is it time to set the stopwatch on protein?

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You grab a  protein shake  after a workout, have nut butter on your toast and are partial to a fish/ chicken/ tofu supper, but research now suggests that it’s not just the type and quality of protein you’re consuming that counts- when you eat it could make quite the difference to your health, fitness progress and weight too.

In a study carried out by researchers at Skidmore College , combining six high protein meals a day alongside a multi-mode fitness program consisting of resistance, interval sprint, stretching, and endurance exercise training (RISE) resulted in improved fitness performance, leaner muscle mass and greater weight loss, including in the abdominal area, among overweight middle-aged participants than a control group undertaking the RISE fitness programme without the additional ‘protein pacing’ element. Those in the protein pacing group sourced 30 per cent of their daily calorie intake from protein by way of five or six protein rich meals a day, working out at 0.4 g of protein per kg of body weight per meal. The control group, however totted up the same amount of calories, but without the structured protein element.

It would seem that regular protein interventions, by way of protein acquired from both food and whey protein supplements as in the Skidmore study, can boost everything from cardiovascular health to weight loss and strength, but how does protein pacing really work, and should we all be upping our protein intakes for the sake of our heart, stamina and waistline? We spoke to registered nutritional therapist Karen Newby  for the scoop…

Why does protein pacing work?

“The concept behind protein pacing is to support lean muscle mass but it also gives the body a constant supply of slow release energy that not only supports training but also weight loss too. It helps to reduce cravings, particularly if sugar is your nemesis. “

“The Skidmore research, however, supplemented food based protein with whey protein, but as a nutritional therapist I choose to recommend plant based protein powder instead as I see so many patients in practice who experience adverse symptoms from whey, plus, it doesn’t include recovery nutrients such as vitamin C, which are important when it comes to easing muscle fatigue as well as keeping the immune system healthy.”

If you do want to opt for a plant-based protein supplement, try Alchemy Sports Elixir , £39.99 for 30 servings, but if whey goes down well, Neat Nutrition Whey Protein , £34 for 33 servings, packs in essential amino acids without the fillers and additives of some commercial whey protein products.

How much protein do I actually need?

The more active you are, the more protein you generally need. Karen crunches the numbers:

“If you’re sedentary, you’ll need 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, upping that to 1.6-1.8 g per kilogram of bodyweight a day if you’re active. So if you’re an active woman who weighs 65 kg, you’ll require roughly 104-117 g of protein per day, while for a sedentary woman of the same weight, you’re looking at around 52 g of protein per day.”

The type of exercise you do could also have an impact on how much protein you need for optimum fitness “gain”, as Karen explains:

“Different kinds of training can require different amounts of protein. For instance for strength training you could need up to twice the recommended daily allowance, working out at 1.6 g to 1.7 g of protein per kg of bodyweight a day. For endurance training it’s slightly less, at around 1.5 times the RDA. That would work out at about 1.2 g to 1.6 g per kilogram of bodyweight per day.”

I’ve cut back on training- should I cut back on protein too?

If you’ve been going over the RDA during training, Karen confirms that you probably won’t be needing that mid-morning peanut butter protein shade…

“It’s true that you won’t need so much protein if you drop training. A good rule of thumb is 2:1 carbohydrates to protein, so keeping a quarter of your plate or snack as a high quality protein source is a good way to approach it. Tuck into oily fish, eggs , quinoa , nuts, seeds and tofu .”

Onto the pacing part- when should I be tucking into my protein?

Prior to training have a protein and carbohydrate rich snack, ideally an hour prior to exercise, to help provide a drip feed of energy, but bear in mind that carbohydrates are needed as the storage fuel for our muscles. If you are a runner or cyclist then you will be placing extra ‘mechanical’ pressure on the gut so it is essential to keep it nourished. If you don’t eat meat or dairy products, never fear, as vegan protein not only delivers amino acids (pea protein has 80 per cent amino acid content), but fibre too which helps to create the right environment in the gut for beneficial bacteria to grow.”

“Post training you need protein to support the development of lean muscle mass, however lots of recent research into the anabolic one hour window post-training shows that this timeframe for protein consumption can actually be extended, allowing you to fix a  protein rich smoothie , snack or meal at home.”

“In short protein is beneficial both pre and post workout, but don’t forget that there are also other factors to consider in terms of reaping maximum benefit from a training regime. Ensuring that your macronutrient intake is balanced in general can help (it’s not all about the protein!), as will making sure that you’re well hydrated and getting the micronutrients you need, such as ample vitamins and minerals. If you’re short of any micronutrients for any reason, supplementation can improve general health and performance, and don’t underestimate the importance of rest, recovery and clocking enough hours of sleep.”

Should I be spreading my protein out equally during the day too?

“I always recommend consuming more protein at breakfast and lunchtime when our stomach acid is at it’s highest- this is working naturopathically with the body. Leaving all your protein to the end of the day will often mean that the digestive system has to work harder and can reduce hunger on waking, so you’re more likely to skip breakfast and end up low on energy later on.”

What are some high quality sources of protein to include?

“I work with protein from food rather than necessarily a protein powder as you’ll get more nutrients, for example, fish will not only provide good levels of amino acids, but omega 3 which is good for joints as well as B vitamins  too which are great for the nervous system and keeping energy levels steady.”

“If you are going to have a protein powder I prefer those created from wholefoods. I created The Sports Elixir  to not only give protein from hemp and pea, which is easy to digest, but also supply recovery nutrients which research has shown are needed to help to support muscles after intensive training. Very often people don’t look after their immune systems and then get injured or ill. I often say to patients that if your immune system is sluggish then your performance is likely to be too, so ensure you’re getting all the protein and nutrients you need, not just protein in isolation. Here are just a few examples of protein content in food:

Fish fillets: 3.5 oz, 22 g protein
Tuna: 6 oz can, 40 g protein
Chicken thigh: 10 g protein
Chicken breast: 3.5 oz, 3 g protein
Chicken drumstick: 11 g protein
A large egg: 7 g protein
Slice of chicken on wholemeal toast/rye – 1 slice delivers 4g protein

Vegan options:

Hummus on oatcakes, 3g protein
Almond butter on oatcakes, 4 g/tablespoon protein
Coconut yogurt: 1 pot/3g protein
Mixed seeds and nuts: 20g, 4g protein
4 falafel: 125g, 8g protein
Alchemy Sport Elixir: 4g protein per serving

Protein and weight loss- give us the skinny…

“More protein is often central to any weight loss programme- protein takes longer to digest and will give you a drip feed of energy, allowing you to stay one step ahead of cravings. As above I work to a 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio in general, so that you’ve also got complex carbs to help raise insulin levels enough to make sure that the protein gets to the muscles. That being said as a nutritional therapist I also assess a patient’s ability to digest this protein. We are after all what we digest, not always what we eat.”

How do I know if I’m not getting enough protein?

“Protein is the building block of the body so it's often hard to pin-point symptoms of low protein as they can be far reaching. One of the signs can be blood sugar imbalance. A low protein, high carb diet is more likely to be giving you peaks and troughs of energy (feeling shaky or faint before eating is a classic sign of this). Changes in skin, hair and nails can also indicate that you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, as protein is required for all of these structural elements. Protein deficiency can be as far reaching as a weak immune system, as amino acids are the building blocks of antibodies for example. If you suspect that you’re not meeting the RDA, add in some high quality protein sources from the list above, monitor how you feel and discuss any health issues with your GP.”

Is it possible to overdo it on protein?

“There isn’t any conclusive research on what is deemed too much protein, as there are many parameters that come into play such as amount of training you’re doing, what kind, how often, what weight are you etc.”

“I help a lot of patients who are often taking on an excess of animal based protein which the body finds harder to process. Remember that the kidneys have to deal with all the by-products of protein metabolism (such as uric acid) and our stomach acid has to work hard to break it all down. Animal products are also deemed more proinflammatory, containing omega 6 as opposed to the more anti-inflammatory omega 3, aside from oily fish. Inflammation is the scourge of athletes so this is why consuming more vegan based proteins and oily fish could benefit the immune system and recovery too.”

It’s worth noting that the World Health Organisation identifies teenage girls and the elderly as the only groups at risk of a protein deficit, while teenage boys and adult men in particular are advised to reduce overall protein intake and include more vegetables in their diet, as many are eating twice the amount of protein that their bodies require. As always, any dietary change should be approached on a case-by-case basis, taking into account your individual health needs and lifestyle. Maxing out on protein willy nilly is far from a magic bullet.

For more insight on the role of protein and protein supplements in our diet, read  Peta Bee’s ultimate guide to protein

Follow Karen on Twitter  @KarenNewby_  and Anna  @AnnaMaryHunter