Getting enough protein during a fitness routine is certainly essential, but timing when you consume that protein can be just as important. Whether you're eating a protein bar before workouts or cooking up full dishes after exercise, timing meals and snacks right can help you maximize your energy.
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To get the most out of protein supplements, time them to be combined with full, balanced meals before and after workouts. Consuming protein bars and shakes along with animal- and plant-based proteins like eggs, lean meats, seafood and legumes, as well as whole grains and vegetables, is the optimal way to build lean muscle, lose fat and keep your body energized for workouts.
Benefits of Breakfast
According to the American Society for Nutrition, not enough Americans eat breakfast. About one American in every five skip breakfast entirely. It's also common for people in the U.S. to eat most protein at night, for dinner, rather than balancing it out equally across meals throughout the day.
Many experts argue that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and possibly for good reason: Research has shown that consuming the right amount of protein for breakfast can help curb hunger, prevent overeating, give you longer lasting energy throughout the day and assist in weight loss.
It can be particularly helpful for people struggling with obesity. A February 2019 study published in Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism found that a high-protein, low-calorie diet helped older adults with obesity lose weight, build muscle mass and shed fat.
Adding protein bars or powder into your breakfast, particularly if it's before your big workout of the day, can be effective for keeping you feeling full.
An October 2018 study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, found that eating whey and casein proteins for breakfast helps manage blood glucose levels and satiety. Because intense workouts deplete glycogen, or blood glucose, eating protein before a workout can provide extra stores of energy for your body to draw upon during exercise.
Still, pre-workout meal timing is important, and it all depends on what your goals are. According to UCHealth, protein bars and shakes are nutritional supplements that should only really be eaten if you're missing protein from your diet, or if you want to use them as meal substitutes on occasion.
If you're hoping to lose weight, you may want to use protein supplements as substitutes for meals, in order to reduce your calorie intake. If you want to gain weight or muscle mass, you may want to combine a protein bar before workouts with a larger breakfast — one that contains eggs, avocado or whole grains.
Read more: Calorie Distribution in a Meal Plan
Pre-Workout Meal Timing
Perhaps you eat a full breakfast every morning, but by the time you work out in the afternoon or early evening, your blood sugar has dropped and you're feeling a bit shaky. This is when you need to optimize your pre-workout meal timing to match your workout needs.
According to a May 2014 study published in Nutrients, athletes — especially those who compete in endurance sports — pretty much never exercise in a completely fasted state. That's because long, grueling workout hours can deplete glycogen and energy stores quickly.
That same study notes that eating a bit of protein and carbohydrates before a workout has been shown to improve performance during exercise, and have positive metabolic effects overall. This is where eating a protein bar before workouts may have a beneficial effect.
The window before workouts may be the best time to eat protein bars or shakes. These supplements are often not overly-filling or heavy on the stomach, yet they'll provide you with some much-needed protein and nutrients before you begin your routine.
According to the American Council on Exercise, protein and carbs are key for pre-workout meal timing. Carbs will keep your glycogen stores filled, while protein will provide the fuel necessary for your muscles to do all the hard work. A meal high in fat, o the other hand, will often slow down your digestion, make you feel tired, and provide fewer nutrients.
While it's important to eat before workouts, it may be even more crucial to eat the proper foods a few hours after working out. That's because the recovery period is key in helping you lose weight and gain muscle.
The American Council on Exercise also notes that there may be an anabolic window of opportunity after exercising, for optimizing recovery and muscle growth. It recommends eating 15 to 25 grams of protein after a workout, as well as 1 to 2 grams, per kilogram of body weight, of carbohydrates. Typically, one scoop of protein powder contains about 20-25 grams of protein, and protein bars can contain up to 20 grams.
Eating only protein shakes or bars may not be the best long-term solution. While an occasional protein bar or shake can be helpful after a workout, especially when you're running low on time, it's important to maintain a balanced diet of whole foods as well.
According to a June 2018 study published in Nutrition Reviews, consuming protein powder with meals is more effective at promoting lean body mass, as well as a reducing fat, than eating protein powder shakes between meals, or as snacks.
In fact, consuming protein powder between meals was actually associated with weight gain. This is another reason why post- and pre-workout meal timing is important, and should be tailored to your goals.
The best time to eat protein bars or shakes is likely before or after workouts, especially if you're hoping to boost your protein intake and gain muscle mass. If you're a bodybuilder, or simply hoping to gain muscle mass, protein bars and shakes can be helpful snacks between workouts and meals.
Read more: How Much Protein Is Right For You?
If you're trying to lose weight, however, the best time to eat protein bars or shakes is as an occasional meal replacement for breakfast or lunch. This way you can cut down on calories while maintaining a high protein intake.
Before-Bed Protein Supplements
Finally, some research suggests that eating a small protein snack before bed can be beneficial. It may help fuel your muscles overnight, boost recovery and growth, and improve your metabolism in the morning.
In one small January 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition with 11 participants, researchers found that eating protein or carbohydrates at night (in particular, whey or casein protein) increased morning resting energy in active young men. It also improved their metabolism.
Another March 2019 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that eating protein before bed stimulated muscle protein synthesis overnight, which led to muscle gain. In short, if you're hoping to increase your protein intake and build muscle, eating some amount of protein before bed may be helpful.
The key is to focus on healthy, low-fat proteins. This is why the best time to eat protein bars at night may be an hour or two before bed, providing you with a large amount of protein, but low in fat. And as long as you're balancing out your protein bars and shakes with full, whole food meals, you will likely see the results of a higher protein intake on your energy, metabolism and muscle strength.
- American Society for Nutrition: "Protein, Its What's for Breakfast"
- Harvard Health: "Extra Protein at Breakfast Helps Control Hunger"
- Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism: "Effects of a Hypocaloric, Nutritionally Complete, Higher Protein Meal Plan on Regional Body Fat and Cardiometabolic Biomarkers in Older Adults With Obesity"
- Journal of Dairy Science: "Effect of Milk Protein Intake and Casein-to-Whey Ratio in Breakfast Meals on Postprandial Glucose, Satiety Ratings, and Subsequent Meal Intake"
- UCHealth: "Are Protein Bars and Shakes Good Sources of Protein?"
- Nutrients: "Pre-Exercise Nutrition: The Role of Macronutrients, Modified Starches and Supplements on Metabolism and Endurance Performance"
- American Council on Exercise: "Meal Timing: What and When to Eat for Performance and Recovery"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Effects of Protein Supplements Consumed With Meals, Versus Between Meals, on Resistance Training-Induced Body Composition Changes in Adults: A Systematic Review"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Night-Time Consumption of Protein or Carbohydrate Results in Increased Morning Resting Energy Expenditure in Active College-Aged Men"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update"