by Jeff S. Volek, Ph.D., R.D.
Here’s an important limitation of prior studies. Increases in muscle mass only occur when muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Most studies only measure protein synthesis, leaving half of the story unknown. Some of the top protein researchers have hypothesized that higher intakes of protein may be associated with less breakdown, and therefore greater anabolism. They argue that there may be no practical upper limit to the anabolic response to protein intake, which means protein intakes greater than 40 grams could have some benefit as well.
Some evidence for this idea comes from a recent study in elderly malnourished subjects who were provided controlled diets containing the same amount of protein (~1.5g per kilogram body weight) for 6 weeks (about 112g of protein for a 165 pound person). One group consumed their protein allotment spread over 4 meals (Spread group). Another group consumed 72% of their total daily protein in a single meal at lunch (Pulse group). After 6 weeks, despite consuming the same total calories and protein, the Pulse group showed significantly greater increases in lean body mass (2.0 pounds) than the Spread group (-1.1 pounds).
The bottom line is that there may be multiple ways to consume protein to achieve gains in muscle mass. If you prefer to spread your protein out, consuming 20 to 40 grams per meal should give you a sustained anabolic effect over the day, but batching 72% of your daily protein into one larger meal will also work if that is more suitable to your lifestyle.