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digest protein

QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, I really appreciate how you rely on research and are always realistic in your articles and responses. I have a question: I have been strength training for a while now, but I’m not sure I’m getting enough protein. I’ve seen formulas for daily protein intake but I’ve also heard that your body can only digest so much protein at once.

I reach my daily protein goal by eating 2-3 heavy protein meals a day but I’m worried a lot of that protein I’m consuming is getting excreted and that I may need to shift to eating 4-5 meals a day but with less protein per meal. So my question is how much protein can your body properly digest and use in one sitting and when can I eat again? Thank you.”

DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for your kind words and for being a regular listener. It makes me so happy to know that you find the show helpful.

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on how much protein you can digest in one meal on Episode 1421 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

Protein Consumption Patterns

Now, I’m going to start by using my psychic abilities and predict that you’re already consuming enough protein each day. How could I possibly know this?

This is because there has been a lot of data collected examining how much and what types of food folks around the world consume regularly. And in the Western world, most of us easily meet our daily protein needs each day. In fact, most of us probably get more than what’s recommended.

But how do we know how much protein we should be getting each day? You’ve mentioned that you’ve seen different formulas for calculating this. There are quite a few of them.

Since you were asking about how much protein to consume each meal, I did find a formula based on a recently published article. The authors said that to maximize muscle building, we should aim to eat 0.4 g of protein per kg of body weight per meal. If you wanted to aim for a daily total, they said we should aim to get about 1.6 g of protein per kg body weight per day.

Doing the Math

I just listed a bunch of grams and kg, which can get really confusing. Let’s take a moment and try and figure out what this means. Stick with me, the math isn’t too scary.

For those of us in the U.S., we don’t measure weight in grams and kilograms. So, we have to do a bit of extra math to make sense of these recommendations.

Let’s say you weigh 150 lbs. In order to make sense of these protein recommendations, we have to convert our body weight in pounds to kg. Luckily, this math is pretty easy. To get your body weight in kg, divide your body weight in lbs. by 2.2. Using my example, if you weigh 150 lbs., divide 150 by 2.2. Punching this into my imaginary calculator and I get 68.2 kg. Hopefully, that’s what you got, too. This means if you weigh 150 lbs., you weigh 68.2 kg. No matter what you weigh, use this same formula: divide your body weight in lbs. by 2.2 to get your weight in kg.

Now that we know your hypothetical body weight in kg, the math is super simple! The published study I mentioned said that during each meal, we should try and get 0.4 g of protein per kg body weight. Well, since our hypothetical body weight is 68.2 kg, we now just multiply 68.2 kg by 0.4.

Let’s enter that into our imaginary calculators and we should get 27 and some change. So, this recommendation says a 150 lb. person should try to get 27 grams of protein at each meal.


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Too Much Protein At Once?

You asked about how much protein the body can absorb at one time. There seems to be a consensus among most of the studies I’ve seen that says most of us can only absorb about 20 g of protein at any given time. But the study that I referenced a few minutes ago said that if we weigh 150 lbs., we can consume 27 grams of protein at each meal! So, what gives?

Well, it turns out that as we learn more about protein metabolism, it seems that certain individuals may be able to consume more protein at a given time.

For example, I’ve talked about the importance of creating demand for protein. Meaning, if we eat extra protein but the body doesn’t have a demand for it (basically, the body doesn’t need it), then that extra protein we eat may not be absorbed.

Or, if it does get absorbed, it doesn’t go to our muscles – it might get converted to fat instead. So, how do we create a demand for protein? By trying to make our muscles bigger and stronger… said another way, perform strength and resistance training on a regular basis.

So it seems that those that participate in regular strength training may be able to absorb more than 20 g of protein at a given time. Also, different types of proteins seem to be absorbed more easily than others. For example, whey protein is one of the most easily absorbed proteins.

But, leucine, a specific type of amino acid may be even MORE important when it comes to muscle growth post-workout. The types of foods the proteins are packaged in may also make a difference when it comes to how much we can absorb at a given time. Not only that, but what you eat along WITH the protein changes how fast that protein gets absorbed.

Can you tell things start to get complicated really fast?

My Recommendations

At this point, you’re probably ready for me to stop confusing you and sum things up into some usable advice regarding how much protein you can digest.

Here’s what most health organizations and experts in the field recommend: try to consume some protein AND carbohydrate within 20-30 minutes after finishing your workout.

After a workout, the demand for protein is high which makes it the best time to replenish it. And because carbohydrate actually helps with protein absorption, eating both within 20-30 minutes of your workout is ideal. How many grams of each should we eat? At this point, both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine say that we should aim to consume about 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes after the workout.

Digging a little deeper into the research, we find that consuming leucine-rich proteins, specifically, may be even more helpful.

Leucine-rich proteins can be found in:

  • animal products
  • beans
  • lentils
  • nuts
  • seeds

And finally, when it comes to how much carbohydrate we should consume after a workout, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends we aim for about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.

Luckily, we now know how to perform this type of calculation to figure out how much we need.

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on how much protein you can digest in one meal on Episode 1421 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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