Protein is a vital component in overall optimal health, but how much of it do you need to eat in one sitting?

When it comes to getting big gains in the gym, many reach for protein supplements and shakes to help keep muscle mass at its tip-top shape. This is for good reason, too, because protein has been dubbed “the building blocks of muscle.” When it comes to getting your much-needed protein intake, though, there are certain factors that go into making sure your body is absorbing the right amount of protein. This is important.  If your body isn’t absorbing what you’re giving it, that protein shake might actually be doing nothing for your muscles.

So how much protein can your body absorb in just one sitting? It depends entirely on a number of factors including where the protein is coming from, how much you weigh and how much muscle mass you need to maintain, your age, your gender, and whether or not you’re pregnant. These factors all come into play when the body processes your protein.

What is protein?

Protein is one part of a group of three macronutrients, the other two being carbohydrates and fats. This group of macronutrients is responsible for keeping energy levels up so that you can get through another day at the office or your afternoon gym session. Protein, in particular, has a big influence on how much muscle mass a person has and, in general, it should be about 15 percent of their body weight if they’re healthy.

KRAS Protein Structure
KRAS Protein Structure / National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

Protein is built up from amino acids, which are organic compounds found throughout the body. These compounds contain things like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and come in nine different groups that all have particular skill sets and jobs to do to keep the function and growth of the body at its best. Without protein, the body wouldn’t be able to grow or function properly due to poor muscle mass.

What does protein do for the body?

Aside from helping to maintain muscle mass, protein plays an important role in a lot of bodily functions. When it comes to diet and appetite, the amount of protein eaten over the course of a day will determine how full you feel, making it easier to avoid overeating. It does this by reducing the production of ghrelin, the hormone that causes that pang of hunger you feel when it’s time to chow down. Having a diet high in protein will also help maintain bone mass well into your golden years. 

Getting a good amount of protein can also boost metabolism because it has a high thermic effect (the rate of metabolism following a meal.) One study also showed that it can help to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack because of its ability to reduce high blood pressure. It can also keep cholesterol down at good levels, help the body recover from injury faster, and reduce muscle deterioration as you age.

The process behind it

Chemicals and vital nutrients that can be found naturally in the body, including protein, need to be created somehow. The process needs to occur in the body because proteins in the body are responsible for building other materials, protecting the body from toxins, and transporting and structuring of other organic materials. The process starts at the cellular level.

Everybody has genes in the body that activate the protein-making cells and for protein synthesis, RNA plays a big role.

The two processes used by RNA are translation (the assembling of amino acids and ribosomes) and transcription (where the mRNA enters the nucleus of the cell to get what it needs from the cell to create the protein). After these two processes are complete, the process of protein folding occurs, which then acts as the final step in making a protein molecule for the body. The process of protein synthesis can also keep up long after your workout, according to a study done by McMaster University. In fact, it can last for up to 48 hours after you killed it at the gym.

How much protein are you really getting?

When it comes to building new muscle mass using protein, the amount of protein the body needs may vary slightly but a general number to abide by is at least 25 grams per sitting. This is because when the protein amounts get any lower than 25 grams, there won’t be enough in the body to help repair the tears that were caused in the muscle following a workout.

If there are not enough protein molecules to be used in protein synthesis, it won’t be able to do its job and rebuild.

To air on the side of caution when getting enough protein in one meal, anything with 25-35 grams will be well enough to ensure that your muscles are getting what they need to stay at their best. Overdoing it on the protein, though, can come with certain issues as well. If there is too much protein in one meal, chances are there’s going to be a lot less of other foods, thus eliminating the chance to get a balanced meal full of all the essential vitamins and nutrients.

Where the protein comes from is important

The amount of protein one needs may vary slightly from body weight, gender, and how active a person is. A more active person may need a few more grams of protein to keep their muscles intact while a sedentary person may need less. It depends entirely on how much working out you are doing and how much muscle mass you need to maintain. As a general rule, men need around 0.8 grams/kg of body weight and women would need 0.36 gram/pound.

The type of protein also makes a big difference in how protein synthesis works its magic. The number of amino acids available in the food going along with the protein has an important impact on how the body will process it. For example, meat proteins are the closest in makeup to the ones found organically in the body and are referred to as complete proteins. Plant proteins (incomplete) lack certain essential amino acids so the process of protein synthesis requires a little more elbow grease for them to have the same effect. 

The best sources for perfect protein intake

Since the source will differentiate between getting a complete or incomplete protein, it’s important to know what types of proteins the body will absorb best. When it comes to complete proteins, such as red meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, they often offer a good amount in one sitting, all coming in at over 25 grams per serving. Cottage cheese is also a great choice for a high protein snack because a serving of 1 cup offers up a whopping 28 grams of protein. 

For plant proteins, it’s a little harder to get the complete version of the protein but it’s still possible to get enough of the macronutrient to keep you going from workout to workout.

A good holy grail snack for those of you that want to get more protein but are following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle are nuts and seeds such as cashews, peanuts, chia seeds, and almonds. Beans can also be very high in protein, with kidney and black leading the group with 6.9 grams per serving. The best plant protein, though, is tempeh, which offers up 31 grams per one-cup serving.

The bottom line

Getting protein from the right source will help you to maintain muscle mass, but getting a more personalized approach to your intake needs will give you the best shot at keeping your body running smoothly. The best bet for getting the best protein absorption is to have at the very least 25 grams with your meal, and complete proteins will get you there easily.

If you can’t eat complete proteins, the incomplete versions will work for you but not as well so you may need to up the intake a bit to ensure that while your body is working overdrive to create proteins, you’re giving it all the tools it needs to get the job done properly.

Knowing what your body needs and how much it needs when it comes to protein will keep your gains growing, your metabolism running smoothly, and avoid deterioration that often comes with aging and the commonly adhered to less active lifestyles of today’s modern society.

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