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By Phill Feltham | Meal planner by Brian Zehetner

To avoid your body eating your hard-earned muscles, follow our guide.

No fitness-minded individual is unaware of the significance of protein in their nutrition program. At the most basic level, you know that protein helps build muscle, expedites repair of micro-trauma that inevitably results from training, and boosts your metabolic response system-wide. But what is equally crucial is the timing of your protein intake. Miss your window of opportunity for eating protein on schedule and your efforts to build strong, aesthetically pleasing muscles can be slowed or even blunted. But that doesn’t have to be the case.


A study conducted by the University of California and Oregon State University reveals that protein makes organisms (you, your dog, Rex, and any other living thing) function optimally. Virtually every cell in your body requires protein. Protein helps transport oxygen into your bloodstream, provides assistance to your immune system to fight infectious diseases and is part and parcel of enzyme- and hormone-building processes.

The building blocks of protein are amino acids, of which there are two types: non-essential amino acids, which can be manufactured in the body, and essential amino acids, those that can only be obtained from food sources. While science has identified thousands of protein, only 20 appear unique in nature.

Thanks to the protein you consume, your body is able to maintain pools of amino acids. Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, says, “Your body tissue continuously atrophies, only to be replaced by new tissue every minute of the day. In order to keep this regeneration process constantly so that the body can dip into them for new rebuilding materials. If the essential amino acids aren’t available in these pools, protein synthesis does not occur.”

What does this mean for you? You need to replenish these pools regularly with amino acids sourced from foods that are high in protein, and for our purposes that means low-fat sources.


If you workout four, five, even six times a week, you’ll deplete your amino acid pools quickly and will need to increase your daily intake. The amount of protein you need will depend on your body weight as well as your activity level. According to the Australian Institute of Sport, moderate-intensity endurance athletes should consume about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The standard for sedentary men and women is 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram per day.

If you’re involved in power sports or a resistance athlete (early training) you will require about 1.5-1.7 grams per kilogram, while steady-state resistance athletes are recommended to consume 1.0-1.2 grams per kilogram per day.

It’s also important to note that female athletes generally require about 15 per cent less protein than male athletes.


During sleep, your body undergoes a series of process, all of which require energy, and essentially (following eight hours of sleep) your energy stores will be substantially depleted. If you skip a well-balanced breakfast – which would replenish those stores – your body can move into what is called a catabolic state (the opposite of anabolic). At this point, in an effort to maintain  homeostasis, the body will start hunting for alternative sources or energy and tapping into assorted tissues, which can include the muscles you’ve worked so hard to build. It’s easier for your body in a catabolic condition to break down muscle than fat.

Comana says that breakfast is the best time for refuelling so that both glucose stores and any potential amino acids that were depleted during your overnight fast can be topped off again.

“You want to eat breakfast to avoid catabolism, which is what happens if you skip the first meal of the day and wait another three, four or five hours before eating,” he explains.


As someone who is fit and active, it’s clear that you have a pretty good idea of the types of protein available to you. Starting with breakfast, you should consume protein evenly spaced throughout the day. Furthermore, though you may have established an optimal amount of daily protein intake, your morning meal should contain a greater amount of healthy carbs relative to protein, and conversely, a higher protein intake in the evening. Divide your overall protein intake between five and six meals a day. For example, if your goal is to consume 150grams each day, aim for about 25-30 grams per meal.


For those of you looking to gain muscle, eating past 8pm provides benefits. But here protein choice becomes important. If you’re going this route, choose casein, the slow-digesting protein found in milk, which can help prevent muscle breakdown while you’re at rest.


Egg whites, turkey breast, lean beef and salmon are among your top sources of animal protein. Of all protein sources, egg whites are considered the ‘cleanest’ and leanest source of animal protein. They are also very low in calories (15 for the average egg white) and high in protein (around 3.5 per egg white), with zero fat, cholesterol or carbs.

Egg yolks will also deliver protein benefits. A whole egg contains 6.3 grams of protein. That’s 2.7 grams lost by throwing out the yolk. What’s more, almost all of the nutrients, minerals and vitamins are found in the yolk, providing you with 23 per cent of your daily recommended value of choline, 5 per cent of vitamin A, 4.5 per cent of vitamin D, 2.5 per cent of vitamin E, 10.6 per cent of vitamin B12, 3.5 per cent of vitamin B6, 2.3 per cent of thiamine, 14 per cent of riboflavin, 10 per cent of phosphorus, 3.3 per cent of zinc and 5 per cent of iron. The point: Pick wisely, depending on your needs.

While moderately high in healthy fat, salmon helps your metabolism burn fat. Lean beef and turkey breast are low in fat and excellent sources of lean protein, so there’s no reason to feel ‘bored’ when trying to increase protein intake.


As an active individual, whey protein powder may play a huge part in helping you maintain high protein sources. It absorbs quickly, filling your stores much more readily than meat-based proteins. There’s no rule of when for when you need to consume protein powder. If you consume a protein shake before exercise, though, the amino acids are ready to go when you start your workout.


Here is a sample plan for the active Ultra FITNESS reader looking to build lean muscle. The chart will give you an idea on how to distribute your protein throughout the day. Keep in mind that this is only a sample and you may require more or less, so variations are acceptable.

Pre-workout protein:

  • 0.5 scoop of your favourite protein powder with water

Post-workout protein:

  • 0.5 scoop protein powder with water
  • 1 slice whole wheat toast


  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 slices whole wheat toast
  • 1 piece fresh fruit

Mid-morning snack:

  • Protein shake or bar
  • 4 rice cakes


  • 120g turkey breast
  • 2 multigrain bread slices
  • 1 cup steamed vegetables
  • 1 tsp extra virtin olive oil

Mid-day snack:

  • 1 protein bar


  • 150g cooked fish fillet or 120g boneless skinless chicken breast
  • 1 cup vegetables
  • Salad with vinaigrette-type dressing
  • Baked potato

Evening snack:

  • Raw vegetables or fruit
  • Protein shake if still hungry


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