How Much Protein Can Your Body Absorb?

An emphasis on protein is required for those looking to build muscle mass. 

Although it seems relatively straightforward, loading up on protein immediately after a workout has its limits. 

In fact, your body might only be able to use a certain amount of protein in one sitting. 

So how much should we be eating during our meals to maximize muscle gain? And is it possible to eat too much protein? 

Let’s find out.

What Happens When You Consume Protein?

Protein is an essential macronutrient that has been associated with benefits for weight loss and metabolic health when prioritized in the diet. This is contributed to the high satiety rate of protein-rich foods [1, 2]. 

Protein reduces your body’s ghrelin levels, the hormone associated with hunger while also boosting the hormone peptide YY, which keeps you feeling full. 

According to research, a high-protein diet may help reduce overall calorie intake by up to 441 calories per day [3, 4, 5].

Protein is also essential in building and maintaining lean body mass. When you perform a strenuous activity, such as weight lifting, your muscle fibers develop tiny tears from the resistance. 

When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into individual amino acids. These are absorbed by your intestinal cells and then circulated through the bloodstream where they are distributed to areas of need, such as your muscle tissue. 

These amino acids help to replenish and repair the muscle tissue to be a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). 

Your body is not able to store protein like it does carbohydrates therefore any extra it cannot use is used for energy or stored as fat [6, 7, 8].

How Much Protein Do I Need Each Day?

Protein requirements will vary by individual but the standard recommendation for most healthy adults is to consume anywhere from 10-35% of their total calories from protein. 

For example, if you consume a 2,000-calorie diet, 200-700 calories should come from protein which equals about 50-175g per day.

Another way to calculate protein needs is based on grams per kilogram of body weight per day. 

It is encouraged for most healthy adults to consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day which equals about .35 grams of protein per pound. This means if you weigh 155 lbs, you should aim to consume at least 56 grams of protein per day [8].

If you are trying to build muscle mass, your protein needs are increased. In fact, during this time the American College of Sports Medicine suggests consuming between 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day [9].

Additionally, if you are trying to lose weight it is important to prioritize protein to preserve lean body mass and target fat mass. 

During this time research suggests consuming around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (about .73 grams per pound) [10]. 

Protein Absorption and Muscle Protein Synthesis

Protein is essential for MPS, the act of building muscle mass, along with resistance exercise. 

However, your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein in one sitting. 

So how much protein can you absorb and what happens if you consume too much?

How Much Protein Can Your Body Use in One Go? 

Most research suggests the body best utilizes between 20-25 grams of protein at one time (within a 1-2 hour period). 

Anything outside of that is believed to be used for energy or potentially stored as fat. 

Although further research on this is still warranted, it shows that there is likely a limit that could affect dietary needs, specifically during MPS [11].

Instead of consuming your protein in one lump-sum post-workout meal, it is suggested that spreading out your protein intake more evenly throughout the day is likely better for MPS as well as digestion. 

For example, consuming 0.4 grams per kilogram body weight per meal across four meals would provide 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram per day spread across more evenly. 

This could potentially help ensure better utilization of those amino acids versus storing them as fat [11].  

Can the Body Absorb More than 30g of Protein?

Protein absorption is unlimited as your body will always be able to digest and circulate amino acids through your bloodstream despite the amount. However, the amount your body can use may vary.

Some studies show protein utilization limits ranging between 20-25 grams per meal however, much of this is still under research and will likely vary by individual. 

Although it’s likely that your body will be able to use most of the amino acids from 30 grams of protein, it’s not guaranteed that it will use all of it. 

Instead of driving yourself crazy wondering if you can eat that much protein in one sitting, focus on evenly distributing your protein intake throughout the day. 

Chances are, you will meet your goals and be more comfortable with this method. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier and doesn’t involve constant calculations.

What About Excess Amino Acids After a High Protein Meal?

When you eat a high-protein meal, your body breaks the protein down into individual amino acids which are then released into your bloodstream. 

They make their way to your liver which then synthesizes protein. 

Any extra amino acids your body doesn’t need will then be converted and stored as fat or made into energy if your body is not getting adequate carbohydrates. As with any macronutrient, consuming too much can result in weight gain. 

Although it is more difficult to consume a high protein diet and gain weight than it is to consume a high carb diet and gain weight due to the high-satiety of protein foods.

Can You Take Too Much Protein?

It is possible to take too much protein in your diet. If you are having too much, your body will likely find not-so-subtle ways to let you know.

For example, too much protein can result in uncomfortable side effects that include weight gain, bad breath, diarrhea, constipation, dehydration, kidney damage, and even increased cancer and heart disease risk. 

Unless you are an elite athlete, research agrees that most people can safely consume about 2-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. 

To avoid overconsuming protein, aim to get your protein from food sources as often as possible. The best food sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, and low-fat dairy products.

Should You Spread Your Protein Consumption Throughout the Day? 

Most research studies support spreading your protein intake evenly throughout the day to help improve digestion and absorption as well as ensure you are meeting your protein needs. 

To do this, aim to consume 20-25 grams of protein during meals and 10-15 grams per 1-2 snacks per day depending on your needs. 

If you aren’t sure if you are eating enough protein or need guidance on how to improve your protein distribution, consider speaking with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

Does Protein Distribution Impact Muscle Mass?

Recent research has determined that total protein intake throughout the day plays a more significant role in muscle gain than the total distribution of protein [12, 13, 14].

This means that, although there is still evidence that supports consuming a high-protein meal or snack shortly before or after exercise, it’s more important to make sure you are meeting your daily protein needs. 

This doesn’t mean you need to strictly calculate the exact grams of protein you are getting at every meal and snack to perfectly fall into this category, but it’s important to be mindful to choose a protein source at every meal and supplement if you know you might be falling short.

Should I Take Protein Before or After a Workout?

It has long been believed that consuming a high-protein meal or shake was required post-workout to take advantage of the anabolic window for optimal muscle gain. 

However, the jury is still out on the timing for protein to stimulate MPS. 

Although some research has supported the benefits of consuming protein shortly before or shortly after exercise, other studies have found it to not be so impactful. 

Overall, the larger body of evidence is leaning toward sufficient daily protein intake for MPS versus specific meal timing or protein distribution [15, 16, 17]. 

With that said, the general consensus on protein intake and exercise is to consume a high-quality protein source shortly before or shortly after a workout (within about 1 hour) depending on what works best for you. 

As long as you are meeting your daily protein needs, you will likely see the results you are looking for so there’s no need to fret too much over it.