How Much Protein Can You Absorb In One Meal, According to Science?

Spoiler alert: it's more than you think!
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Eine Frau trink Protein shake ©foodspring

If you want to build muscle, then you need to pay attention to your protein intake. There’s a reason you’ll have heard this so often! A protein-rich meal will provide you with the building blocks your body needs to produce muscle protein from dietary protein. This process is referred to as muscle protein synthesis. It can only happen if you absorb sufficient quantities of amino acids, which are what proteins consist of. So now we come to the big question: how much protein can your body actually absorb with each meal? Is 20 to 30 g per serving the maximum: does anything over that just go to waste?

Well, let’s start by clarifying the difference between protein absorption and the amount of protein your body needs to trigger muscle protein synthesis. Everything you’ve eaten gets absorbed, as this simply means the transfer of nutrients from the intestine into the bloodstream, and, as studies show, there’s no real limit to this for healthy individuals. So the question is this: how much protein per meal can your body use to build muscle? We’ll get to the bottom of all this and look at what the science is telling us.

One important point before we get started: apart from looking at the amount of protein per serving, it’s important to make sure you’re covering your daily protein requirement, too. To build muscle mass, we recommend around 1.5–1.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. Struggling to get enough protein? Our Whey Protein shake is packed with high-quality protein and it’s quick to mix up!*

What the studies say

Have you ever heard of the muscle full effect? A review by the Exercise Metabolism Research Group at McMaster University finds that from the protein consumed each meal, there seems to be a specific limit to how much is used to build muscle. This is the muscle full effect. According to the research, exceeding that limit of approx. 20–30 g protein would not give you any extra benefits in terms of muscle building.

Another study looked at this issue more closely and compared two groups with one another. The first group was given a piece of beef fillet to eat, containing approximately 30 g of protein. The second group was given a larger serving, with 90 g protein. The results showed no significant difference in muscle protein synthesis between the two groups.

ALSO: Proteins aren’t all the same

The findings would seem to confirm that 20–30 g protein per meal is enough, but it’s not quite that simple. There are lots of other factors that can affect how proteins are metabolized. One is the source of protein you opt for and its biological value. For muscle protein synthesis, you need a sufficient quantity of essential amino acids. This amount isn’t the same for all foods.

Animal sources of protein, such as meat, fish, eggs etc., are better here, because they cover the entire range of amino acids and have more in common with the protein profile of our own bodies. If you’re a vegan, remember to combine different sources of protein in your diet by eating lentils, peas, tofu and more. Our Vegan Protein shake gives you all the essential amino acids in a single serving!

Individual factors play a role, too

Your own individual requirements will also determine how much protein you should consume with each meal. Every body is different, after all. It’s important to consider the following factors:

Your age

As you age, what is known as anabolic resistance increases. This means that older people need more protein to trigger muscle protein synthesis compared to younger people. But there’s some good news: according to a study by the Exercise and Sport Sciences Review, if you stay active and exercise regularly into old age, you can reduce your anabolic resistance.

Your body weight and muscle percentage

The greater your muscle mass, the more protein your body can use to build muscle per meal, according to the research at McMaster University. An intake of approximately 0.4 g of protein per kilogram of body weight is recommended with each meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

Your training program

Another study looked at the effect of exercise regime on protein absorption. The test subjects did a full body workout, and the researchers found that 40 g whey protein had a more lasting effect on muscle protein synthesis than 20 g. The researchers concluded that the more you use your muscles in training, the more protein your body can absorb.

Your eating habits

Of course, the amount of food you eat a day is also key. If you’re eating more than 30 g protein per meal, perhaps because you’re doing intermittent fasting or simply because you like to eat a high-protein diet, the rest doesn’t simply go to waste. Your body still digests and metabolizes the food. Listen to your body to get a sense of how much protein you can handle per meal.

Our conclusion

Don’t go mad! 20-30 g of protein is a good rule of thumb that will work for most people. Individual factors also come into play alongside the biological value of the protein source in question, which is why levels can fluctuate and exceed the 20–30 g limit. Keep your daily requirement in mind and try to incorporate a source of protein into every meal to be on the safe side. For a more precise picture of your nutritional needs, check out our user-friendly calculator.

More things to know from foodspring:

*Proteins contribute to muscle growth.

Sources for this article

We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.