By Mike T Nelson, MSME, CSCS, PhD
There is plenty of data to show that protein has many positive effects from increasing lean body mass (muscle yo!) (2,3), assisting with positive tendon changes (stronger soft tissue) (3), to even help recover from injuries (4).
But how much protein do you need?
On the low end, we know that a single dose below around 10 grams of a whey protein supplement is not enough to affect much change in muscle remodeling (5) which is most likely related to the leucine content (6,7).
On the other end, is there a max on the amount of protein you can use at once? Poke around the wild wooly web (8), and there is a myth that you can’t use more than 30 grams of protein at one meal.
Despite multiple shots to the head, this myth is like a Zombie coming back from the dead routinely.
Let’s speculate that you cannot use more than 30 grams of protein at once, just for fun.
You and your buddies go to a nice steak house and you order up a super tasty 12 oz porterhouse steak. This clocks in around 80 grams of protein. – Oh ya!
You are a bad ass athlete who likes steak so you “man up “and eat all of it at once while you high five your buddies upon your man vs. food completion.
Epic Protein Time
If you could only use 30 grams, where does the other 50 grams go?
Do you see a huge steak-looking poo in the toilet the next day?
Seriously, where did the steak go? Magical winged steak angels took it away?
Here is the deal. It is a total myth that you can only “use” 30 grams of protein at once.
Why the confusion then?
The confusion arises when we look at protein intake and muscle growth. It is true that the muscle building response (measured acutely as muscle protein synthesis aka MPS) will max out around 20 grams of a whole intact protein such as egg or whey protein (1) .
In that study, there was no statistical difference in the 20 gram vs. the 40 gram group when looking at MPS. The extra protein was oxidized (used) by the body and did not contribute to an increased rate MPS.
The myth lovers will point to that study and cry
“Ah ha! I told you eating more than 20 or 30 grams of protein is a waste.”
But not so fast there, protein hater.
Another study by Yang et al. in 2012 showed that 40 grams of whey was better than 20 grams in an older population; so age may be a factor (13).
This makes sense when we look at the real world too.
If eating 2xs more protein resulted in 2xs the muscle growth, you can bet I would be upping my protein intake yesterday, as would many athletes everywhere.
Adding to this confusion was a study by Paddon- Jones PhD, who was quoted (8):
“Our research shows that eating about 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner is more beneficial for muscle protein synthesis than eating a large amount at dinner”
They founds that a small dose of protein around 11 -16 grams was not as beneficial as a 30 gram dose (9).
Spreading out of the doses of protein to around 30 grams per meal was better than trying to make up for it at dinner with a super large dose of 63 grams (9).
If you are not familiar with the study, you may conclude that the large amount of protein at dinner was “a waste,” but it was actually the sub par doses of protein at the other meals that resulted in less effect over the course of a day.
Physiology is rarely ever linear and more is not always better. Muscle growth response to protein intake is indeed not linear and results in diminishing returns over time despite you pounding more protein in your pie hole.
Upping your protein from 200 grams per day to 400 grams per day will not result in 2xs the muscle growth, although your cardio may get a bit of “jet propelled effect” as it is processed in your gut.
However, this does not mean your body can’t use more than 30 grams at once. It is processed and digested just fine. Plus protein is essential and serves many other functions in the body other than just making your muscles bigger (10,11).
Summary: How Much Protein At Once
Being able to only use 20 or 30 grams at once is a total myth.
Protein is needed for many functions in the body besides muscle growth and repair.
At a certain point, more protein does not result in more muscle or faster repair.
The amount of protein used directly by your muscles also depends on your age, with older people needing more protein at one time to get a similar acute effect (MPS).
Time to order me up a big slab of dead cow and relax.
– Dr Mike T Nelson
1) Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, Tang JE, Glover EI, Wilkinson SB, Prior T, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):161-8. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26401.
(2) Volek JS, Volk BM, Gómez AL, Kunces LJ, Kupchak BR, Freidenreich DJ, Aristizabal JC, Saenz C, Dunn-Lewis C, Ballard KD, Quann EE, Kawiecki DL, Flanagan SD, Comstock BA, Fragala MS, Earp JE, Fernandez ML, Bruno RS, Ptolemy AS, Kellogg MD, Maresh CM, Kraemer WJ. Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. J Am Coll Nutr. 2013;32(2):122-35. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2013.793580.
3) Farup J, Rahbek SK, Vendelbo MH, Matzon A, Hindhede J, Bejder A, Ringgard S, Vissing K. Whey protein hydrolysate augments tendon and muscle hypertrophy independent of resistance exercise contraction mode. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Oct;24(5):788-98. doi: 10.1111/sms.12083.
4) Wall BT, Morton JP, van Loon LJ. Strategies to maintain skeletal muscle mass in the injured athlete: nutritional considerations and exercise mimetics.
Eur J Sport Sci. 2015;15(1):53-62. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2014.936326.
5) Cooke MB, La Bounty P, Buford T, Shelmadine B, Redd L, Hudson G, Willoughby DS. Ingestion of 10 grams of whey protein prior to a single bout of resistance exercise does not augment Akt/mTOR pathway signaling compared to carbohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 Nov 8;8:18. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-8-18.
6) Norton LE, Layman DK, Bunpo P, Anthony TG, Brana DV, Garlick PJ. The leucine content of a complete meal directs peak activation but not duration of skeletal muscle protein synthesis and mammalian target of rapamycin signaling in rats. J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6):1103-9. doi: 10.3945/jn.108.103853. Epub 2009 Apr 29.
7) Norton LE, Layman DK. Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):533S-537S.
8) Mydrasis. (2015, Jan 4). You can only absorb 30 grams of protein in one sitting [Reddit log] Retrieved Dec 15, 2016 from https://www.reddit.com/r/bodybuilding/comments/2q3tmm/you_can_only_absorb_30_grams_of_protein_in_one/
9) Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK, Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jun;144(6):876-80. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.185280. Epub 2014 Jan 29.
10) Uenishi K, Ishida H, Toba Y, Aoe S, Itabashi A, Takada Y. Milk basic protein increases bone mineral density and improves bone metabolism in healthy young women. Osteoporos Int. 2007 Mar;18(3):385-90. Epub 2006 Oct 18.
11) Abrahão V. Nourishing the dysfunctional gut and whey protein. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2012 Sep;15(5):480-4. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e328356b71e.
12) Upton, Julie. (2014, June 6; updated 2014, August 10). 5 Things You’ve Got All Wrong About Protein [Huffington Post]. Retrieved Dec 15, 2016 from
13) Yang Y, Breen L, Burd NA, Hector AJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Josse AR, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Resistance exercise enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis with graded intakes of whey protein in older men. Br J Nutr. 2012 Nov 28;108(10):1780-8. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511007422. Epub 2012 Feb 7.