How Much Protein Can Your Body Absorb? Here's How Much to Eat In One Sitting

June 4, 2024

Protein is the essence of life… it’s the stuff we’re made of. Excluding water, every cell in your body consists primarily of protein. 

That said, protein should clearly be the centerpiece of your meals. After all, the word “protein” is derived from the Greek “proteios,” which translates to “of the first rank.” 

But how much of this vital nutrient should you eat in a single meal? How much protein can your body absorb? And how much is too much protein?

Before we address these questions, let’s first take a quick look at what protein does for your body and the current daily recommendations.

The Role of Protein in Your Body

The musculoskeletal system—our body's structural framework and foundation is centered around protein. Muscles contain 50% to 75% of all body proteins (1). Protein also makes up about 50% of bone volume and approximately one-third of its mass. It provides the structural matrix of bone (2). Collagen—the glue that holds your body together—is the most abundant protein in the body, found primarily in bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, skin, and muscles (3). 

If its structural role in the body wasn’t enough, protein helps carry out nearly all of the body’s physiological functions. Proteins are embedded in the membranes (boundaries) of every cell, regulating the transit of small molecules into and out of the cell and sending signals to the nucleus or other cells (4). 

Antibodies, crucial for the body's defense, and hormones like insulin and growth hormone are all made up of proteins. Plus, thousands of enzymes in the body, like the ones for digesting food or detoxing, are also protein-based (4).

Proteins are constantly being made and broken down in the body. We need a steady supply of amino acids (“building blocks”) from dietary protein to replace losses and maintain a positive protein balance (5).

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How Much Protein Do You Need?

The amount of protein you need each day has become a hot topic for debate in recent years. For over 40 years, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein has remained at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for adult men and women (or about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight per day). Requirements for younger age groups are higher, ranging from 0.9 g/kg/day for teenage boys to 2.2 g/kg/day for infants (5).

But here's the thing: leading protein researchers suggest that adults should increase their protein intake quite a bit... maybe even double it! While the current recommended level is enough to prevent a full-blown protein deficiency, it falls short of promoting peak health.

 To put it in perspective, they recommend getting anywhere from 10% to 35% of your daily calories from protein. This range, known as the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), translates to 0.8 g/kg/day to 2.5 g/kg/day—way more protein than the RDA calls for. And guess what? It's linked to some serious health benefits and a reduced risk of chronic diseases (6). 

So, the ideal protein intake should be closer to 1.2 g/kg/day to 1.6 g/kg/day (or more than half a gram to one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day). For women, this amount nearly doubles the meager RDA of 46 grams of protein per day (7)!

This suggested increase in protein intake is largely based on the prevention of sarcopenia—the loss of muscle mass, strength, and function with age. Sarcopenia is a growing public health epidemic. Age-related muscle loss afflicts more than 30% of people over the age of 60 and progresses at the rate of 3% to 8% per decade. In older adults, sarcopenia can lead to frailty, disability, and loss of independence (6, 7). 

Older adults, in particular, need more protein to counteract the “anabolic resistance” of skeletal muscle. That is, aging muscle becomes less responsive to the anabolic (“muscle building”) effects of dietary protein and resistance exercise. New research indicates that the current RDA for protein is not sufficient to preserve muscle mass as people age (6, 7).

How Much Protein Should You Eat at Each Meal?

Protein needs are tied to body weight, but figuring out how much you need per meal could be an easier approach. This way of looking at protein requirements is based on the idea that having a meal with 30 grams or more of high-quality protein can help with muscle growth in healthy adults. (8). 

Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is your body's way of using amino acids from the protein you eat to build new muscle proteins. In order to gain muscle mass, your body has to produce more protein than it breaks down. 30 or more grams of protein not only drives protein synthesis, it also helps prevent protein breakdown (8). 

To be more precise, the amount of protein required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis at a single meal depends upon the meal's leucine content. Leucine is an essential amino acid, meaning your body can’t make it on its own, so you must get it from your diet. Like many other amino acids, leucine serves as a building block for constructing protein.

More importantly, it activates an important signaling enzyme known as mTOR, which is the master regulator of protein synthesis in muscle. The target of 30 grams of high-quality protein per meal provides around 2.5 grams of leucine—the amount shown in studies to trigger mTOR and optimize MPS, thus enhancing muscle health (6). 

According to recent studies, a protein intake ranging from 30 to 50 grams per meal is ideal for optimal muscle growth and maintenance. Protein intakes below this range are not very ‘muscle-friendly,’ while intakes greater than 50 grams do not further enhance muscle health. Moreover, this allotment of protein is also linked to a higher metabolic rate (more calorie burning at rest) as well as better appetite and blood sugar control (6). 

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How Much Protein Can Your Body Absorb & Utilize in One Sitting?

The popular belief that there is a ceiling on the amount of protein that you can absorb in one sitting is a myth. Essentially, there is no limit to protein absorption. An egg or other protein is broken down via digestion to its component amino acid building blocks. In the gut, the amino acids are then transported across the intestinal wall and into the general circulation. Virtually all the amino acids from the meal are subsequently utilized by the liver and other tissues, including muscle (9). 

While the amount of protein you can absorb is unlimited, the bulk of evidence suggests a limit to the amount of protein your muscles can utilize (9, 10, 11).

Here’s how it works:

Eating a meal with high-quality protein activates mTOR to signal muscles to begin making protein. The production of protein in muscle peaks at about 60 to 90 minutes after the meal and then returns to pre-meal levels within two to three hours. At this point, muscle protein synthesis drops off even though amino acid levels in the blood remain elevated, and the mTOR muscle-building signal persists. Thereafter, muscles become resistant, or refractory, to stimulation from protein (10, 11)

This refractory period (referred to as “muscle-full”) allows the protein-making process time to recover and reset for the next meal. Ultimately, this cap on muscle protein synthesis provides the basis for spacing meals three to five hours apart (10, 11).

Interestingly, a new study challenges the concept that there is an upper limit to how much protein muscle can utilize from a single meal. The researchers demonstrated that consuming a very large 100-gram dose of protein results in greater and more sustained (≥ 12 hours) muscle protein synthesis when compared with the consumption of 25 grams of protein (12). However, there are three main concerns with this study:

  1. As the researchers themselves pointed out, the experiment was conducted on 36 healthy young men (19 to 31 years old) following a single intense bout of whole-body resistance exercise. Younger muscles are more sensitive to protein stimulation, particularly after resistance exercise (10). 
  2. The protein used in the study was predominantly casein—a very slow-digesting protein (13). Also, it’s unrealistic for most people to eat nearly a pound of meat in one sitting. 
  3. Since previous studies concur that MPS is capped at 45 grams (6, 9), it is possible that MPS plateaus at this level and that higher amounts of protein do not significantly affect MPS. In other words, the study design should have compared 100 grams vs. 45 grams of protein (rather than 25 grams). 

In any case, more research is needed to investigate how the body responds to higher amounts of protein in different populations, conditions, and types of protein.

What is the Best Way to Distribute Protein at Individual Meals?

For many Americans, the typical pattern of protein consumption is heavily skewed toward the evening dinner meal. The evening meal usually makes up more than 60% of a person’s total protein allotment, while breakfast often contributes only a paltry 15 grams of protein (10). 

In a study with healthy adults, it was found that spreading protein intake evenly throughout the day—having 30 grams at breakfast, lunch, and dinner—led to a 25% increase in muscle protein synthesis over 24 hours compared to an unbalanced distribution of the same total amount of protein—10 grams at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch, and 65 grams at dinner (14). 

As noted above, consuming at least 30 grams of high-quality protein at each meal can help improve muscle health, appetite control, blood sugar control, and metabolic rate (6)

Struggling to hit your protein goals? Here’s a sample day of eating that can help you get 100 grams of protein a day:

Nevertheless, breakfast may be the most important protein meal of the day. In a study in older adults (≥ 65 years old), adequate protein (0.4 grams/kg body weight) only at the breakfast meal was found to be more effective at maintaining muscle mass and strength than adequate protein at only lunch or dinner (15).

Animal Proteins vs. Plant-Based Proteins: Which is Better?

When it comes to muscle-building potential, high-quality animal proteins (meats, fish, dairy, and eggs) are clearly superior to lower-quality plant proteins (e.g., legumes, nuts, seeds). Increasing the ratio of animal-based proteins to plant-based proteins may help to counter the loss of muscle mass and strength with age (16, 17).

The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is a good indicator of protein quality. The PDCAAS of animal proteins registers at 100% whereas all whole-food plant-sourced proteins score below 100%. Peanut butter, for instance, scores only 45%, and wheat gluten—the most consumed protein on the planet—scores a measly 25% (16, 18).

In addition, plant proteins contain lower quantities and a less balanced proportion of essential amino acids than animal proteins. In particular plants are lower in leucine—the key trigger for muscle protein synthesis (16). In one study, soy protein was relatively ineffective at boosting muscle protein synthesis when compared to whey (dairy) protein. This was suggested to be linked to the lower leucine content of soy (19). 

Vegans and vegetarians who avoid or limit animal protein need to eat larger quantities of plant protein to compensate for their lower muscle-enhancing ability (20). For example, to approximate the 2 grams of leucine in a 3-ounce serving of organic grass-fed lean beef, you need to eat about 2 ½ cups of soybeans (17).

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Frequently Asked Questions About Protein

Claims that high protein intakes are harmful to kidney and bone health are unfounded. In fact, protein intakes above the RDA are linked to improved kidney function as well as preservation of bone mineral density (21). 

Although an intake of 2 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day is considered safe for healthy adults, a protein intake of 3 g/kg/day is the tolerable upper limit without adverse effects [this amounts to 210 grams of protein per day for a 154 pound (70 kg) individual. Consider that Greenland Eskimos have thrived for centuries on a daily protein intake of 280 grams without kidney or liver damage (22)!

The Bottom Line

There’s no limit to how much protein you can absorb in one sitting. However, the amount of protein that your muscles can utilize appears to be capped at around 45 grams. Target a minimum of 30 grams of high-quality protein (e.g. 3.5 oz. chicken breast) at each meal and a range of 30 to 50 grams. This dose of protein not only triggers muscle protein synthesis but also helps control your appetite and blood sugar levels, and potentially your weight … without losing precious muscle!

Consuming enough high-quality protein is essential for optimal health, particularly muscle health. Adequate protein helps to ward off age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), which is linked to greater frailty and disability, as well as increased risk of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Keeping your muscles healthy keeps everything else healthy.

Gram-per-gram, high-quality animal protein is more “muscle-friendly” than plant proteins. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, consume larger quantities of plant protein to compensate for its lower quality.

And don’t forget about collagen—an important protein that’s not commonly consumed in sufficient amounts from the diet. Consider a supplement of collagen peptides. Your bones, joints, skin, and muscles will be forever grateful!

Everyone needs to prioritize protein for robust health…so be sure to share this post!

Robert Iafelice
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Robert Iafelice

Robert Iafelice, MS, RD, LDN is a functional nutritionist and freelance medical writer. He is the author of Hold On to Your Muscle, Be Free of Disease, a unique perspective on wellness and disease in the context of muscle health.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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