How You Eat Protein (Not Just How Much) Might Affect Muscle Mass

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Overhead of chicken breast on salad with green beans

Image by Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

While it may seem like eating enough protein is the key to building healthy muscle mass (among other things), new research conducted by the University of Birmingham suggests it's not how much, but how and when older adults eat their protein that matters. 

A study published in Frontiers in Exercise and Sports Nutrition found while the amount of protein eaten still matters, for older adults, the timing in which they eat it might have more of an impact on muscle mass.

What did the researchers find?

Researchers from the University of Birmingham school of sport, exercise, and rehabilitation sciences evaluated the diets (particularly protein intake) of 120 participants. They were divided between young, middle-aged, and older adults. 

Each participant was asked to document their food intake every day for three days, and researchers concluded that while all three groups were meeting their recommended guidelines for protein intake, older adults weren't necessarily eating it at the right times to promote healthy muscle building. 

Rather than spreading protein consumption across each meal, adults in the oldest group (77 years old on average) were eating the majority of their protein in just one meal. 

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How does it affect muscle mass?

According to the study, "This uneven pattern of daily protein intake likely results in a failure to meet the threshold for maximal MPS stimulation during most meals."

MPS stimulation, or muscle protein synthesis, occurs to help muscles repair and function efficiently. Since these mechanisms naturally decline as adults get older, it's important for them to consume more protein than they may have needed years before. 

To maximize the effectiveness of protein consumption, though, older adults should be consuming higher-quality proteins throughout the course of their day, the study suggests. 

What's next for the research?

"Most people are reaching the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein, but our results show that a one-size-fits-all guideline for protein intake isn't appropriate across all age groups," said lead author of the study Benoit Smeuninx, Ph.D. 

Updating the current nutritional guidelines could educate older adults on how they should be consuming protein, and from what sources. However, even that may not be enough. 

"We need a more sophisticated and individualized approach that can help people understand when and how much protein to consume to support muscle mass," Smeuninx said. 

Additionally, engaging in exercise—no matter your age—can help support muscle building in aging adults.

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