Can Bodybuilders Digest More Than 30 Grams of Protein in One Meal?
This myth has been around since the late 1970’s, and I really can’t figure out why or where it originated. There are about a million theories about how much protein, fat, and carbs should be eaten each day, each meal, even each hour. Most bodybuilders are concerned about eating exactly the right amount of protein, because they want to maximize muscle gain but they also want to avoid any excess calories, even from protein, getting stored as body fat.
So, how much protein should we eat in a single meal? How much can our bodies process at once? Some nutritionists say only 20 grams, while many professional bodybuilders consume as much as 100 grams in a single meal! What’s the truth?!
The generally accepted myth is that smaller folks can’t digest more than about 30 grams of protein in one meal, and larger folks can process about 40 grams in one meal. That’s why you see so many protein powders and meal replacements that contain between 20g and 40g of protein per serving.
This myth propagated the practice of eating 6 or more small meals throughout the day. After all if you can’t eat 60 grams of protein in one serving, 3 times a day, why not try eating 30 grams, 6 times a day.
The problem with the 30-40 gram myth, is that it assumes every body’s digestive system is nearly identical, with a little room for error based on the size of the body. However every personal trainer and nutritionist knows that every body’s body is completely unique and different from everyone else.
The truth is that if you do eat too many calories in a single meal, the excess calories will be stored as fat. Therefore if you eat 60 grams of protein in one meal, but you limit your fat and carb intake, then your body will process and digest all 60 gram of protein. After all, that’s only about 240 calories – a small meal or snack indeed.
Maybe they won’t all be used strictly to build muscle. They will all be assimilated one way or another, but that can be a problem as well. When amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are broken down for energy, the process, called ketosis, creates toxic ketones that float around in your blood stream. Too many ketones can cause damage to the liver and kidneys over time.
Now consider eating 60 grams of protein, 60 grams of carbs, and 20 grams of fat in one meal. Your body will get all of the energy and fatty acids it needs from carbs and fats, so anywhere from 40-75% of those protein calories will be put to good use, but ultimately you’re going to end up with excess calories that will be stored as fat.
The amount of protein a body can digest and use, depends on several factors, including the absorption and digestive abilities of the gastrointestinal tract, the amount of protein recently eaten, the extend of exercise-induced muscle trauma that needs to be repaired, and the number of calories ingested from fat and carbohydrates.
Recently, a French study of elderly women concluded that protein synthesis was much higher in a group that ate one meal with 50g of protein, versus another group that spread those 50g out over several meals. We see this with Intermittent Fasting as well. It seems that eating a couple big meals is more beneficial to protein synthesis and blood glucose levels, than eating many small meals spaced evenly apart.
The simple conclusion is that you can digest more than 30 grams of protein in one meal, and in fact you can probably digest 50 or even 60 grams of protein in one meal. The problem is that you probably shouldn’t.
There is definitely a limit to how much protein you should eat in one meal. Upwards of 60 grams and you’re asking for trouble, from a gastrointestinal and body fat standpoint, and with respect to your organs. Your best bet is to try eating between 30-50 grams of protein in one meal and then observe your body and digestive system. If you have some digestive issues with that level of protein, your body will let you know.
A good goal for most natural bodybuilders is to aim for 1-1.5 grams of protein daily, per pound of body weight. Your best bet is to spread the protein out over 5 or 6 meals and snacks. Of course a single meal or snack could be just a plain protein shake with 40 grams of protein. Three of those in a day and you’re already up to 120 grams, then eat a small amount of protein with your 2-3 regular meals and you’ll meet your daily protein quota without issue.