How much protein can we eat per meal?
30 Grams? 40 Grams? More?
I had a friend do something rather unusual during a dinner out. She grabbed her calculator, measured her steak and proceeded to divide it into three pieces. Then she asked the waiter for a to-go box to put the extra meat aside.
The action of cutting a restaurant serving size down isn't what I found odd. Because restaurants tend to serve meals with extremely high calorie counts, it's a great way to stop yourself from overeating. The strange part was the reason WHY she did it.
My friend wanted to make sure that she wasn't eating more than 30 grams of protein in a single meal. She had read online that our bodies can't digest more than 30 grams in one sitting, and that the rest would be converted to fat. So she would calculate how much protein was in each meal, and remove anything in excess of 30 grams.
It's a very handy rule, but it completely ignores how our bodies digest food. The amount of protein we get from any meal varies, and is based on several factors.
What type of protein are we eating? Raw egg protein may be digested as slowly as 1.3 grams per hour. Casein protein is processed at a rate of about 4 or 5 grams per hour, while our bodies may be able to process 8 to 10 grams of whey protein per hour.
That's why casein protein is recommended before bedtime, to give you a sustained release over time, while whey is best right after a workout to speed healing and recovery.
What other foods were included in the meal? A dinner high in fiber would have slowed down the absorption of nutrients, including protein. Even a meal made up completely of protein, isn't absorbed instantly. Our stomachs keep digesting over time until everything is gone.
How healthy is your digestive system and what is the makeup of the bacteria in your gut? Researchers have found people have distinctly different "bacterial gut fingerprints." Some can process protein very efficiently while others struggle with smaller amounts.
What did we do right before the meal? If you just finished an intense exercise session, you're going to process and use protein faster than if you've been lying on the couch watching TV.
If we were unable to process more than 30 grams of protein per meal, then people who only eat once or twice a day would die of malnutrition rather quickly. But they don't.
The fear that many people have is, if they eat more protein than their bodies can digest in a single meal, they'll simply turn the excess into fat. Sort of, but It's a little more complicated than that.
Let's say you're supposed to eat 100 grams of protein in a day. Our recommendation is to spread that out over five meals with 20 grams of protein each. Each meal reduces your hunger, makes it easier to avoid binges and reduces cravings. In several studies people who ate frequent small meals throughout the day had greater muscle mass and lower bodyfat.
But if you only eat two meals with 50 grams of protein each, that doesn't mean you're doomed to be fat. Your body just takes a little longer to break the protein down, perhaps over five hours per meal instead of two or three. You just have to be more careful about resisting temptation when hunger pangs start because you'll have longer gaps between those meals.
The weight gain happens if you're consistently taking in more total calories than your body needs, EVERY day. Those total calories can be from ANY source, fat, protein or carbohydrates.
The combination of everything you eat in any 24-hour period of time is more important than the detailed breakdown of any individual meal. As long as the total amount of fat, protein and carbs you eat over the course of a day are balancing out, you'll be just fine.
TWO EXCEPTIONS For people trying to build muscle and lose fat, there are two times when both precisely WHAT you eat and MEAL TIMING are important.
- When you first wake up. Your body generally hasn't had food in several hours, so your metabolism has slowed down to conserve energy. You're also burning muscle to keep up with your body's nutritional needs. Eating breakfast boosts your metabolism and helps you burn up to 10 percent more calories doing your morning activities. The total number of extra calories you burn isn't significant. But the fact your body STOPS burning muscle IS a big deal.
- After your workout. Glycogen synthesis (your muscles ability to repair itself) is three times higher immediately after a workout than if you wait as long as 2 hours later. The sooner you eat or drink, the better your recovery rate.
Ideally for those two meals you should choose something that's higher in carbohydrates and protein, lower in fat and fiber. Protein and carbs together increase your insulin levels, which mean less muscle breakdown. The insulin is a "vasodilator" that "opens up" the blood vessels and transports more blood and nutrients to the cells. More nutrients means faster recovery and less potential muscle soreness. Avoid fat because it will slow the absorption of nutrients and delay the muscle repair.
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