I had a conversation with a client last week that inspired me to discuss how much protein we can absorb at one time and how much we should likely consume, based on our goals.
Today I’m going to address the myth that we cannot digest or absorb more than 30, 50, or even 100 grams of protein in one sitting. And if that’s the case, why do fitness professionals recommend so much more than the FDA? Are there health risks associated with eating a LOT of protein?
I’ve been in the industry for just under 10 years and I can’t express to you how much nutrition methodologies have changed during that time. Part of what makes our team so strong is our thirst for new knowledge. We are always studying, learning, and growing.
Recently I’ve gone through reviews by Dr. Mike Istraetel, Jeff Nippard, and Menno Henselmans as part of my ongoing nutrition research. What I like about them is they cover many aspects of this particular topic by reviewing scientific literature. I’ve done some of my own research and implementation with a variety of clientele so I want to provide a summary for you.
So…how much protein do you need, and how much protein is too much? First you have to address the context of your goals. A sedentary person that isn’t interested in sport, muscle mass, or resistance training has one protein requirement. And those who want to perform well in their sport (ie daily exercise), build muscle (no ladies, not bulk up), gain strength, and feel great physically overall require a different approach.
In the literature on “optimal protein”, most of the studies in bodybuilding and sports performance are conducted on athletes. The goal is optimizing performance, recovery, and muscle growth. And the subjects have similar abilities to synthesize protein, and build lean tissue. “Muscle protein synthesis” (balancing the loss of protein through the production of new protein) can be measured. So the optimal protein intake is the amount that maximized Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) in these subjects. Aka how much can we absorb to maximize our cells’ ability to create more protein.
We as coaches were always taught to consume 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (meaning I’d have to consume 155g per day). A number of studies show that when you consume up to 1 gram/lb of body weight, you see more MPS. If you go over 1 gram/lb of body weight you do not see more MPS. Therefore, it is said that this is the upper limit of how much protein you can consume to maximize muscle gain.
RULE # 1
1gram/lb of body weight – the upper limit of maximizing anabolism (muscle building)
Additionally, how much, and how many times you eat protein in a day has also been studied around the desired goal of increasing MPS. The studies show that if you divide your daily protein requirement into 4 equally sized meals, you tend to max out MPS. I think of it as your standard 3 meals a day, plus one meal right after a workout. Your body has different needs at different times of the day, which is why we don’t eat ONE huge meal a day and call it good. On the other hand, I don’t want to plan my entire day around trying to get 6 meals in.
RULE # 2
4 meals a day – Minimum number of meals to maximize anabolism
1g/lb Bodyweight / 4 meals –
• 100lbs person – 25g/meal
• 150lbs person – 37.5g/meal
• 200lbs person – 50g/meal
When I’m planning protein needs for a client, I tend to go anywhere in the .8g-1g per pound. The studies suggest 1 gram/lb is more than what you need to maximize MPS, and that .85grams/lb might be a better upper limit. But when you calculate your needs, 1 gram is a nice round number that ensures you get enough protein. And it won’t cause any harm 😊
It’s kind of hard to make a clear argument that eating 3, 4, or 5 meals a day is BEST. When we get into fewer or more than that, we might not maximize MPS (and you know I’m a fan of efficiency). You also have to remember that this might not be the only thing driving your nutrition and lifestyle choices.
How Much Can We Digest?
With some of these figures, you might think that if you weigh 150lbs, you should eat more than 40 grams of protein in a single meal. Can we really digest this much?
Digestion and absorption are very different than what the protein gets used for. We can theoretically absorb and digest as much protein as we could stuff down our throats. You could eat, digest, and absorb hundreds of grams of protein in one long sitting. BUT how much of that protein will get used to build muscle vs just being burned as energy or stored as fat?
The research says we can sit down and digest 300 grams in a single meal, but only a fraction of that will go to building muscle. The rest of it will be burned for the body’s other energy-demanding processes. Or the extra calories will just be stored as fat this is for those of you who don’t eat during the day then consume all of your days’ calories at night just to sit and watch tv for an hour then sleep for 8…aka no movement).
So, for example, I need 155g per day and like to break that up over 4 meals. If I need 40grams per meal, and I take in 50-60grams at one meal, that doesn’t cost me anything from a health or muscle perspective. It just means that I will digest those extra grams of protein, and put them towards other processes in the body other than MPS/anabolism.
Remember, food is fuel!
Now, what if I eat too little in one meal? Don’t sweat it, you will be able to make up for it in the next meal. Per meal targets are good for optimization. But it’s more important to make sure you don’t miss your daily total. If you are a little under at a meal because you didn’t have access to the best sources, then just make up for it at the next meal.
So can we eat too much protein?
In general, that’s pretty damn hard to do. When you overeat protein it hasn’t been shown in otherwise healthy individuals to cause health issues. (Folks with kidney issues need to consult with their doctor specifically about protein.)
If you are counting calories/macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) and eat more protein, you will have to consequently eat fewer carbs and/or fats. Remember, those extra grams of protein will go towards energy. And that means you don’t need as many carbs or fats for your energy needs.
Here are a few reasons why you might not want to go over on protein often.
- Protein is more expensive than carbs and fats generally. If you are on a budget, then just meet your daily protein target and then fill in your additional calorie needs with carbs or fat.
- If we lower carbs as a result of excess protein, we might miss out on the performance and recovery benefits of carbs. This is why you see high-level athletes planning their carbs around their workout time.
- If we lower fats as a result of excess protein, we might miss out on the hormone and recovery benefits of fats. Yes, we have a huge need for healthy fats in our diet.
It is probably important to talk about excess protein in the context of a calorie surplus (more calories in than calories burned). When we eat in a calorie surplus we put on weight. People that overeat calories often store that extra energy as body fat.
If you overeat protein for excess calories, there is one unique thing that happens, versus carbs and fats. Since protein is more demanding to digest than carbs and fat, overeating it is slightly more difficult for the body to convert and store it as fat.
Don’t take this as a green light to eat endless chicken breast. Your body is smart and it will find a way to store excess calories in one way or another. I will tell you that it is harder to pack on pounds of fat by eating too much chicken breast as compared to too many jars of Peanut Butter.
Digestion Speed Matters
Want to know something else that not enough people talk about? We don’t eat MACROS in life generally. We eat FOOD. Most meals that we at are comprised of a mixture of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Mixed meals mean that these macros interact with one another. And they each impact the rate of digestion and absorption differently.
Chugging a 100% whey protein shake is a lot different than eating a salad with chicken, pistachios, olive oil and vinegar dressing, and dried cranberries. That meal has protein, fat, carbs, and fiber, and it will all digest over the course of a couple of hours. These macros will be released into the bloodstream slowly and steadily for a while.
Compare this to the whey protein shake that will digest fast and leave you to absorb all those amino acids in a short time frame. We’re more effective at digesting a mix of macros slowly than using a quick blast of protein for building muscle. This is why I tell my clients you can’t just rely on protein shakes and supplements. Aim to have whole foods as often as you can. Not only with this leave you more satiated, but it will help you use the protein that you ingest more effectively for muscle building.
Timing Matters Too
The final note today is protein timing. I already covered that 4 evenly spaced protein meals each day might be optimal. If you want to maximize anabolism (muscle building), there are some important times of the day to focus on for getting your protein in.
This is the “peri workout window”. This includes the 4-5 hour period around training, both before and after. Ideally, place one of your protein feedings before and after your workout inside this 4-5 hour period. I try to get most of my carbs for the day in around that period too.
OK. Now you’ve heard the information, the context, and some practical applications. What are you still confused about? What questions do you still have? Feel free to email us at email@example.com for help or to set up a nutrition consult😊