(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’ve been told that the human body can only process, digest and absorb about 20-30 grams of protein in a single meal, and the rest goes to waste. Is there any truth to this? Because if there is, it would mean most people would need to eat a higher number of meals per day in order to meet their total protein requirements for the day, wouldn’t it?
ANSWER: I think I can answer this one in just two words: it’s bullshit.
Whew, that was easy. If it’s cool with you, I’m going to start writing the next article now.
Wait… what’s that you say? You want some additional details? Okay, if you insist.
Where Does This Myth Come From?
The myth that your body can only “use” 20-30g or 30-40g or whatever other magical amount of protein in a single meal has been around for decades. Where did it come from?
The two best guesses I’ve come across over the years are:
- It’s a part of the meal frequency myth. You know, how you must eat 6 meals per day, exactly 2-3 hours apart, to “speed up your metabolism” and make other amazing-yet-not-actually-true things occur? Well, at 6 meals per day, the average sized person shooting for the good old 1g of protein per pound of body weight recommendation would end up eating about 20-40g of protein per meal.
- Supplements. Is it a coincidence that the typical serving of a typical protein powder contains about 20-30g of protein per scoop? Probably not.
It might be a combination of both. Or something even simpler. Like misinterpreted research. Or maybe some random bodybuilder claiming it for whatever nonsensical reason.
And then whoever heard it repeated it to 5 people, and those 5 people repeated it to 5 people, and those 5 people repeated it to 5 people, and one of those people wrote an article about it that thousands of people read, and so on and so on and so on until it became a universally accepted “fact” that is actually nothing more than a silly diet and fitness myth like any other.
So Then What Happens If You Eat More Than 30g Of Protein At Once?
You don’t die. The “extra” protein doesn’t go to waste. Everything goes quite normally.
Pretty anticlimactic, I know. But it’s true.
See, your body is good at handling most of what you throw at it. Which is why there is no reason to think your body won’t be able to handle/use/process/digest/absorb whatever amount of protein you give it in a single meal regardless of whether it’s 20g, 30g, 40g, 50g, 60g, 70g, 80g or any other realistically capable amount you can think of. It can and it will.
Various studies (including those looking at intermittent fasting, where significant amounts of protein are eaten within shorter time frames) all support this, and not a single study I’ve ever seen shows otherwise.
The only meaningful difference here is that a meal containing more protein will just take longer to digest than a meal containing less protein. That’s literally it.
Which means, nothing “goes to waste.” All of the protein consumed will still get absorbed… just over a longer period of time. But, in the end, the same total amount protein will be processed whether it was consumed via three 20g meals or one 60g meal. Or any similar example.
So, if you’re currently putting a very specific limit on the amount of protein you consume at one time as a result of this myth, and your diet would be more convenient, enjoyable and sustainable for you if you removed that limit… go for it.
I personally eat more than 30g of protein virtually every single time I eat protein. Hell, I don’t think I’ve had a single dinner in the last 5 years that contained less than 50g of protein.
And that brings us to the other question that may have just popped into your head…
What Is The Maximum Amount Of Protein The Body Can Process In A Single Meal?
So, if 20, 30 or 40 grams isn’t the supposed special cutoff point after all… then what is? What is the maximum amount of protein the human body can handle in one sitting?
The answer to this question is… we don’t know. There really is no exact amount.
But the consensus “best guess” is… a lot. As in – like I alluded to a second ago – the maximum amount of protein you’d ever be capable of consuming in a single meal. Basically, you’d go “holy crap, I can’t eat anymore” long before actually reaching that unknown maximum amount.
I’ve seen Alan Aragon describe this limit as “likely similar to the amount that’s maximally effective in an entire day.”
So, yeah. Unless you’re planning on entering a hot dog eating contest, you’re gonna be just fine.