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Studies suggest protein-pacing helps fit people get even fitter. An expert breaks down what you need to know.

March 27, 2017

Maybe your goal pace feels just out of reach. Or you're frustrated by a lack of progress at the gym. The answer may not involve exercising more, but rather rethinking how much protein you eat—and when.

Consider the PRISE method: Recent research from Skidmore College suggests the protocol is an effective way for fit people to get even fitter. The RISE in PRISE stands for the familiar elements of a good fitness routine—resistance exercise, interval sprints, stretching, and endurance exercise. But the P may be what your current regimen is missing: It's short for protein-pacing, which essentially means consuming protein regularly over the course of a day.

And those servings add up to a lot of daily protein. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for the average woman is 46 grams. But protein-pacing involves consuming as much as 120 grams(!) in a day.

In two studies published in the last year, exercise scientist Paul Arciero and his colleagues followed a total of 50 physically fit men and women (between the ages of 30 and 65) for 12 weeks. All of the participants performed the same RISE exercise routine, and consumed the same number of calories per day. But half the participants practiced protein-pacing and the other half did not.

At the end of the trial period, the researchers found that all the participants showed improvement in measures of fitness—but the protein pacers had greater gains than the control group.

These findings support prior research by Arciero and his team on overweight people. That study, published in Obesity in 2013, found that eating more protein, more frequently throughout the day led to an increase in lean body mass and a decrease in body fat (including belly fat, the most dangerous kind).

So how does protein-pacing work, exactly? To find out more, we spoke with Arciero.

The overall goal, he says, is to eat at least 20 grams of high-quality protein (from animal sources or plants) four to six times per day.

“Consuming protein this way stimulates protein synthesis in the cells, which is just a fancy way of saying the production of healthy, lean muscle mass,” says Arciero. And the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns.

“It also stimulates your metabolism to operate at a higher burning rate, and signals the brain that you’re satiated.” That means you'll naturally eat fewer calories overall, because the protein fills you up.

Here, he shares a few tips to help you get started:

1. Have your first serving within 30 minutes of waking up. And your last serving right before bedtime. The key is that you space out your servings evenly over the course of the day. 

2. Learn to eyeball 20 grams of protein. If you're having animal protein—such as chicken, fish, or beef—you should eat a serving the size of your flat palm (about 3 to 4.5 ounces), says Arciero. For plant protein (like lentils, quinoa or beans), help yourself to a serving the size of your fist.

What's unique about this diet is that you're eating protein in quantities the body can absorb more efficiently, Arciero explains.

3. If you're trying to lose weight, eat even more protein. Aim for somewhere between 25 and 40 grams per serving. The same goes for people who are super active (say, training for a big race).

RELATED: 13 High-Protein Breakfast Ideas and Recipes

4. If you're going to exercise, eat a protein serving right before or after your sweat session. Especially if you're doing resistance or interval training. The protein will help fuel and repair your muscles, so you’ll get better results from your workout.

5. Keep high-protein snacks on hand. Think hard-boiled eggs, whey or pea protein bars or powder, almonds, and Greek yogurt. It’s also helpful to stock up on canned fish, and keep cooked lentils, quinoa, black beans or chickpeas in the fridge, he says, so you can add a quick protein boost to any meal.

6. As you build snacks, start with the protein. If you think you'll still be hungry, add healthy fats; then carbs. 

You can track your diet on Arciero’s free iOS app GenioFit, which also makes recommendations based on his research. “It comes down to the quality of what you’re eating,” says Arciero. “We need to step away from thinking a calorie is a calorie, and more importantly de-emphasize the amount of food you should be eating, and focus on the kind of food.”