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Low On Protein? Prioritize Leucine

nutrition Jun 09, 2021

Getting 3 to 4 grams per meal can help make muscle, even when protein is relatively low.

by Selene Yeager


When it comes to getting enough protein, the struggle is real. Highly active, menopausal women need a lot of protein—about 30 grams per meal and 15 to 20 grams per snack—spread throughout the day to support their training and maintain healthy muscle mass.


Many simply miss the mark. In fact, that’s one of the most commonly expressed nutritional concerns in the Feisty Menopause membership and social media channels.


If you’re among them, try prioritizing leucine-rich protein sources whenever possible. Several studies report that even when women eat less total protein, when the protein they eat is relatively high in leucine, it stimulates muscle protein synthesis (a.k.a. the process by which muscles repair and build) as well as if they’d eaten more total protein.


For instance, a study on healthy, resistance training postmenopausal women (average age 69) published in The Journal of Nutrition found that the women had similar muscle protein synthesis when they drank a milk-based drink that contained 10 grams of protein with 3 grams of added leucine as when they drank a 25 gram whey protein isolate drink that also contained 3 grams of leucine, twice a day for six days.


A similar study of older, resistance training women published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that the women who drank a 15 gram protein-based beverage with about 4 grams of leucine twice a day had better muscle protein synthesis than women who downed a beverage with the same total protein, but only 1.3 grams of leucine. 


The International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends striving to get at least 1 to 3 grams of leucine from your protein-rich meals and/or snacks, in addition to a balanced array of essential amino acids. Research suggests that older women may need 3 to 4 grams per meal for maximal stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. 

If nothing else, be sure you get your high-leucine protein foods/drinks within an hour (preferably 30 minutes) of exercise, especially strength training and hard workouts. When it comes to recovery, you really want to nail that 30 to 40 gram mark, with 3 to 3.5 grams of leucine, to shut down the muscle breakdown process, says Dr. Stacy Sims, author of ROAR and creator of the Menopause for Athletes course. “Then you want to continue to space out your protein throughout the day, getting that 25 to 30 grams at each meal so you maintain that muscle synthesis and a healthy amino acid pool in your circulation,” she says.

How to hit those leucine goals?

The USDA has a comprehensive list of leucine-rich foods. Good sources include:

Cottage cheese (1 cup)  2.8 grams

Beef/Steak (3 oz.)             2.3 grams

Pork (3 oz.)                        2 grams

Fish, like tuna (3 oz.)         1.9 grams

Chicken, dark (3 oz.)        1.8 grams

Beans (1/2 cup)               1.8 grams

Tofu (1/2 cup)                  1.7 grams

Black beans (1 cup)          1.4 grams

Lentils (1 cup)                   1.3 grams

Yogurt (1 cup)                  1.2 grams

Eggs (2)                             1.1 grams

Edamame (1 cup)             .8 grams

Chickpeas (1/2 cup)           .8 grams

Lima beans (1 cup)          .8 grams

Peanut butter (2 Tb)           .5 grams

Soy milk (8 oz.)                  .5 grams

Sunflower seeds (1/4 c)  .4 grams

When it comes to protein powders, whey-based products generally have the highest amounts of leucine. If whey doesn’t work for you, check out plant-based protein powders like Vega Sport Premium, which delivers 2.4 grams of leucine per scoop.


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