How Much Protein Can Your Body Use from One Meal?

Steak is a high protein meal

How much protein can your body digest and use at a time? If you you eat the right amount of protein at every meal you’ll supposedly hit the sweet spot – maximum muscle growth and satiety (fullness) without wasting food or money. General guidelines based on short term trials and one cross-sectional study suggest adults need regular meals including 25 – 45 grams of protein per meal to maintain or build muscle mass and maximum strength (1, 2, 3). However, it is possible that more protein per meal may be beneficial in some instances while the per meal amount might not matter very much in others. Your body can and will digest all of the protein you eat in a sitting (it might take a while) and it doesn’t just discard any excess that isn’t used to build structures in the body.

In this article I’ll cover:

  1. Why we should we focus on a “per meal” dose of protein;
  2. What happens to “leftover” protein;
  3. What influences protein requirements;
  4. How you can estimate your protein needs.

Does the Amount of Protein Per Meal Matter?

In a really cool study conducted by well-known protein scientists, the minimum amount of protein per meal found to maximally spike muscle growth was 0.11 grams per lb. of body weight in younger adults and 0.18 grams per lb. of body weight in older adults (over 71 years of age) (2). Older adults need more protein due to a decline in muscle response to protein intake that occurs with age. In addition to a minimum, there is an upper limit of protein intake; anything beyond this threshold dose will not be used to build muscle. For example, one study examined 4 ounces of beef containing 30 grams of protein compared to 12 ounces of beef containing 90 grams of protein. The larger serving did not lead to a greater increase in acute muscle protein synthesis compared to the 4 ounce serving (4). So now we know we need some protein, but not 90 grams in one sitting. In another study, 40 grams of protein stimulated the processes underlying muscle growth and repair to a greater extent than 20 g after a whole body workout (9). However, we still don’t know what the minimum upper limit is, beyond which higher intakes do not lead to increases in muscle mass or muscle functioning over time (5).

More evidence for a per meal dose came from a short-term study that found an even pattern of high quality protein at each meal (30 grams per meal; 1.2 g/kg for the day) as opposed to a skewed pattern (10 grams at breakfast, 15 g lunch and 65 g at dinner; 1.2 g/kg for the day) may be best for maximally stimulating muscle building in young adults (1).

Despite the evidence in favor of an even distribution of protein intake throughout the day, a short-term study in older, resistance trained adults given 2x the RDA – 0.68 grams of protein per lb. bodyweight (1.5 grams per kg) per day in an uneven or even pattern (see chart at the end of this article) or the RDA of 0.36 grams of protein per lb. bodyweight (0.8 grams per kg) per day again in an uneven or even pattern found the pattern of intake didn’t matter. Consuming 2x the RDA, regardless of whether it was consumed in an uneven or even pattern, led to a significantly greater increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to consuming 1x the RDA. The pattern of protein intake didn’t matter, possibly due to age-related decline in muscle response to protein intake,  greater total daily protein intake or some other factor (6).

What Happens to Excess Protein Intake?

There is no long-term storage site for amino acids, the building blocks of protein. After eating a thick juicy steak, creamy bowl of split pea soup or sizzling soy fajitas, your body digests the protein and absorbs the amino acids, using them to build new structures, including muscle. However, the amount of protein we can digest and absorb greatly exceeds the we can use to build muscle tissue (8).

After you eat protein, your gut takes some of the amino acids (based on research in animals, the gut takes 40-50% of the available amino acids from dietary protein) and uses it for energy and local protein synthesis. Your liver also takes some amino acids and uses them to make liver and liver-derived blood proteins (9).

When excess protein is consumed, more than the body needs at that point in time, the rest is used for energy or  converted to body fat. The nitrogen (from amino acids) is combined with other compounds to form urea, a harmless waste product, which is processed by the kidneys and excreted in the urine.

What Influences Protein Requirements?

Though 90 grams in one sitting may be more than necessary for muscle, science has yet to figure out the exact threshold beyond which there is no benefit for muscle. This is a complicated question as there are many factors that influence a person’s daily protein needs as well as how much protein a person may need at each meal. These include but are not limited to: age, training status, total daily calorie intake (if dieting total protein needs are higher), overall amount of protein consumed each day; the type (anti-nutrients?), quality and leucine (or EAA) content of the protein consumed at each meal, other nutrients consumed at meal time, training program, lean body mass, health status and goals.

How Much Protein Do You Need at Each Meal?

Given the research to date, does a per meal does matter?

If you are dieting, yes.

If you don’t get at least 0.55 grams protein per lb. body weight (1.2 grams per kg), yes.

If you eat plenty of protein every day and a decent amount at regular meals throughout the day, it might not matter that much, or at all.

For now, stick to the general guideline of at least 25 grams per meal (the amount of an average female’s palm worth of chicken, turkey, red meat, fish). You may need more, per meal, to maximize muscle growth and repair  if:

  • You are older (relative term since we don’t know exactly what age qualifies as “older). Aim for 1.0 – 1.5 grams of protein per day (7) and regular meals with a good amount of protein per meal. If you have chronic kidney disease, follow the advice of your RD and MD.
  • You eat primarily vegetarian proteins.

Many factors influence a person’s nutrition needs. If you want to maintain or gain muscle mass and strength, concentrate on your total daily protein intake (at least 0.55 grams of protein per lb. of bodyweight; 1.2 grams per kg) followed by how much you consume at each meal. There is no one-size-fits-all ideal protein intake per meal and the body doesn’t just “waste” protein that isn’t used for muscle building. For now, research suggests 25 to 45 grams per meal is a good general guideline. More may be better for muscle. Less may be necessary if you have chronic kidney disease.

Table: Quantity of dietary protein intake, but not pattern of intake, affects net protein balance primarily through differences in protein synthesis in older adults (select data and average leucine intake calculated)

Amount Pattern Meal Protein (grams) Protein as a % of total calories Average leucine intake per meal (calculated)
1x RDA Uneven Breakfast 11.1 8 0.89
Lunch 14.9 8 0.89
Dinner 47.8 12 3.56
Total 73.7 10 4.45
Even Breakfast 22.3 15 1.63
Lunch 21.5 9 1.63
Dinner 22.0 9 0.81
Total 65.8 11 4.07
2x RDA Uneven Breakfast 18.1 15 0.80
Lunch 24.3 12 1.60
Dinner 78.4 22 4.79
Total 120.8 19 7.99
Even Breakfast 38.0 25 2.98
Lunch 36.5 17 2.98
Dinner 37.9 18 2.23
Total 112.4 19 8.2

References

1 Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK, Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jun;144(6):876-80.

2 Moore DR, Churchward-Venne TA, Witard O, Breen L, Burd NA, Tipton KD, Phillips SM. Protein ingestion to stimulate myofibrillar protein synthesis requires greater relative protein intakes in healthy older versus younger men. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2015;70(1):57-62.

3 Loenneke JP, Loprinzi PD, Murphy CH, Phillips SM et al. Per meal dose and frequency of protein consumption is associated with lean mass and muscle performance. Clin Nutr 2016 Apr 7.

4 Symons TB, Sheffield-Moore M, Wolfe RR, Paddon-Jones D. A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects.J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109(9):1582-6.

5 Deutz NE, Wolfe RR. Is there a maximal anabolic response to protein intake with a meal? Clin Nutr 2013;32(2):309-313.

6 Kim IY, Schutzler S, Schrader A, et al. Quantity of dietary protein intake, but not pattern of intake, affects net protein balance primarily through differences in protein synthesis in older adults. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2015;308(1):E21-8.

7 Paddon-Jones D, Campbell WW, Jacques PF, Kritchevsky SB1, Moore LL, Rodriguez NR, van Loon LJ. Protein and healthy aging. Am J Clin Nutr 2015 Apr 29.

8 Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent perspectives regarding the role of dietary protein for the promotion of muscle hypertrophy with resistance training. Nutrients 2018;10(2): 180.

9 Macnaughton LS, Wardle SL, Witard OC, McGlory C, Hamilton DL, Jeromson S, Lawrence CE, Wallis GA, Tipton KD. The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole‐body resistance exercise is greater following 40 g than 20 g of ingested whey protein. Physiol Rep 2016;4(15): e12893.

 

 

Protein Before Bed for Greater Muscle Gains?

protein before bedA recently published study found a protein rich snack before bedtime led to greater gains in muscle mass, strength, and type II muscle fiber size in young men participating in a resistance training program. Yet a closer look at the details of this study suggest the timing (before bed) might not matter at all.

In this study 44 young men were given a supplement containing 27.5 grams of casein and 15 grams of carbohydrate or a placebo that contained no protein, carbs or calories before they went to sleep each night for 12 weeks. They also lifted weights 3 times a week under the direction of a supervised and periodized program. The young men were instructed not to change their diet (other than the supplement). Food logs were taken to access dietary intake. Both groups consumed about 1.3 grams of protein per kg bodyweight before the study started. However, the group given the supplement consumed a total of 1.9 grams per kg bodyweight during the study while the placebo group continued eating the same amount of protein as they did before the study started – 1.3 grams per kg bodyweight. So, was it the timing of protein before bed, the total difference in protein intake or both that led to the results? We don’t know. However, the total protein intake of the placebo group was on the lower end of the recommended range (1.2 – 2.0 though higher values may be beneficial for some, especially those who are cutting calories) anyone should consume if they want to get stronger and bigger.

So what’s the bottom line?

We don’t know if consuming protein right before bed will help young, healthy and active adults make greater gains from their strength training program compared to consuming the same total amount of protein each day without a protein-rich bedtime snack.

My protein recommendation for now:

Meet your daily protein needs based on your goals first and if a pre-bedtime protein-rich snack helps you do this and sleep well at the same time, then great. If eating or drinking before bed interferes with your sleep (running to the bathroom counts as interfering) then this strategy may do more harm than good.

References:
Snijders T, Res PT,Smeets JSJ, van Vliet S, van Kranenburg J, Maase K, Kies AK, Verdijk LB, van Loon LJC. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. J Nutr 2015.

Res PT, Groen B, Pennings B, Beelen M, Wallis GA, Gijsen, AP, Senden JM, Van Loon LJ. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2012;44:1560–1569.

Best New Protein Picks on the Market

If you are tired of the same vanilla and chocolate flavored supplements and looking for something different that delivers on taste and nutrition, check out my top 5 picks from Expo East, the largest natural foods show on the East Coast.

About Time Protein Pancake Mix

pancakes 1Protein is drying, it will suck the water out of any bar, beverage, or baked good you make. That’s why it is incredibly tough to incorporate protein into pancake mix. About Time mastered this challenge and created pancakes that are incredibly moist and taste better than any pancake I can remember eating in recent years. They are gluten free, contain 21 grams of protein per serving, no artificial ingredients and they are easy to make – just add water, stir and let them sit for 5 minutes before placing the batter in a hot plan. Their Chocolate Chip and Cinnamon pancake mixes are on Amazon:  About Time Protein Pancake Mix, Chocolate Chip, 1.5 Pound
About Time Protein Pancake Mix Cinnamon Spice – 1.5 lbs
PF_AC_Bar_3D.HR PF_PBTC_Bar_3D.HRPure Fit Bars

My taste buds have been in search of innovative nutrition bar flavors and textures for quite some time. Pure Fit Bars contain 18 grams of non-GMO, gluten free, vegan protein goodness. They are soft, won’t melt in the heat and come in several unique flavors. If you LOVE Quest bars, give these a shot, you won’t be disappointed. Some of their flavors are available on Amazon: Pure Fit Nutrition Bar, Almond Crunch,, Pure Fit Peanut Butter Nutrition Bars

originalProtein Plus

If you miss the taste of thick, creamy peanut butter shakes (including peanut butter chocolate), you will love Protein Energy Powder. A group of peanut farmers in Georgia extended their line which also includes peanuts and peanut flour, to add this vegetarian shake that includes 17 grams of peanut protein. I was absolutely wowed about how good these shakes were (I tried the peanut one mixed in 2% milk). Check them out on Amazon: Protein Plus – Chocolate Peanut Powder – Protein Energy Powder – 30 Servings

Muscle Pharm Thrive

Thrive Chocolate

Last year I walked around the Expo hall and tried several plant-based proteins. After trying about 5 or 6 my taste buds got up and launched a full fledged protest against any non-soy plant based protein. “No More! These are inedible!” Plant based proteins are very tough to formulate. But Muscle Pharm clearly worked with the best food scientists to create Thrive (which hits the market in January). Each serving contains 26 grams of vegan protein and the taste…. you won’t miss whatever you are drinking right now.

Almond Milk Lightly Sweetened

Orgain

The majority of soy, almond and other non-dairy beverages fall short on total protein compared to milk. Orgain, one of the leaders in USDA organic vegan nutrition shakes, almond milk and other products has a new vegan almond milk with 10 grams of protein that, like all of the other foods/beverages mentioned here, tastes great. It has a smooth, slightly sweet taste and excellent smooth mouthfeel. Likewise, I also highly recommend their vegan nutrition shakes with 16 grams of protein. And, this brand is now at one of my favorite stores too – Costco! Or, find them on Amazon: Orgain Vegan Nutritional Shake, Sweet Vanilla Bean, 11 Ounce (Pack of 12)

I’m always in search of exceptional nutrition but foods and beverages must also taste good. After all, you shouldn’t have to choke down something just to get the nutrition to give your body the nutrition it needs.

This post contains affiliate links to these products through Amazon.

Eat to Beat the Cold and Flu

It’s October which means people are running around panicking about getting their flu shot and worried about getting sick. (for all of you on the go people, I recommend concourse C of the Atlanta airport – yes, they are giving out flu shots in the airport). And what’s perplexing to me is that people miss some of the most obvious ways to prevent themselves from getting sick:

1) wash your hands and wash them often (soap up for 20 seconds)
2) get a new toothbrush every 3 months
3) stay away from sick people
Simple right? And a few more simple things you can do to keep yourself healthy:
4) get enough protein to keep your immune system functioning ship shape
5) drink 4 or more glasses of milk or fortified soy milk daily or take a vitamin D supplement
Yes, you can get vitamin D from other foods but even then it’s hard to meet your daily needs. Why worry about D? According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, of the 19,000 people examined, those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were more likely to report a recent upper respiratory infection. And vitamin D is one of those micronutrients that many of us fall short on.
Easy right? Now put this plan to action (especially the hand washing part).

Choose Protein for Sustained Weight Loss

Looking to lose weight? Bust out the protein. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition found what figure athletes and bodybuilders already know. Diets with increased protein and reduced carbs are effective for weight loss and maintenance.

In this particular study the researchers put adults (average age 45) on one of two energy restricted diets for 4 months to induce weight loss: 1) 1.6 g protein per kg body weight and less than 170 grams carbohydrates or 2) 0.8 g protein per kg body weight and less than 220 grams carbohydrate. Both diets decreased their normal caloric intake by 500 calories/day. After 4 months the moderate protein group lost 22% more fat mass than the group consuming the RDA for protein (0.8 grams/kg body weight). However, there were no significant differences in weight loss (i.e. the higher protein group lost more fat mass but not more weight overall). After the initial weight loss period, subjects were than put on an 8 month weight maintenance diet. After this period, there were no significant differences in weight loss between groups. However, after the course of a year, researchers concluded that a moderate protein diet was not only more effective for losing fat mass and improving body composition but it also resulted in sustained reductions in triglycerides and increases in your good cholesterol (HDL) compared to the higher carbohydrate, RDA protein diet.
This study also compared participants who attained a weight loss of at least 10% body weight. Among the “biggest losers”, the group consuming more protein lost significantly more weight and more fat mass than the other group (RDA for protein, higher carbs).
These results clearly show that the RDA for protein is too low and if you want to drop some lbs (and I assume those lbs are fat pounds), then bump up the protein and watch your carbohydrate intake.

Fat, Protein or Carbohydrate? What’s the Best Way to Lose Weight?

A New England Journal of Medicine study published today examined how 811 people fared on four different diets with varying macronutrient contents:

1) 20% fat, 15% protein, 65% carbohydrate
2) 20% fat, 25% protein, 55% carbohydrate
3) 40% fat, 15% protein, 45% carbohydrate
4) 40% fat, 25% protein, 35% carbohydrate

They were offered diet counseling and instructions for 2 years and ate similar foods on these diets. So which diet won the battle of the bulge? It was a 4-way tie. Satiety, hunger, diet satisfaction and group attendance was similar among the groups. However, the authors found one a few commonalities to other weight loss studies. First, there participants saw an initial weight loss in the beginning followed by weight regain or a plateu. This is common because in the beginning people are fired up about losing weight and over time their enthusiasm may wane. The second common finding was that the participants had a tough time following the macronutrient guidelines. This too is not surprising. First you’d have to calculate your calorie intake then keep track of your macronutrient intake to ensure you are achieving the right percentages. So, you pretty much need to keep a detailed diet record. This finding is also important because it throws off the results of the study. If you are comparing a low carbohydrate diet to a high carbohydrate diet, you better have the participants really control for carbohydrate intake.

The authors concluded (both from the published research and their own study) that diets of differing macronutrient content can be used to achieve weight loss. And, I totally agree with this. However, this study didn’t take body fat percent into account. And, weight loss doesn’t always mean fat loss. In fact, many people lose a mix of bone tissue, muscle and fat. The goal should be to minimize the loss of the first two and maximize fat loss. Doing this requires a certain amount of high quality protein in your diet.

The second conclusion they made was that diets should be tailored to individual patients on the basis of personal and cultural preferences for the greatest long term success. Now this I completey agree with. Most people aren’t going to flip through a magazine or look online and follow a meal plan exactly as it is written. Those are meant to be used as general guidelines, not diet prescriptions.

So, what’s the take-home point here? Weight loss is hard. We can get people to lose weight but keeping it off is another battle. The most successful people keep track of their weight and food intake and they exercise. They also succeed by attending group sessions or regularly seeing a dietitian to make changes to their current diet.