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Is There Really a Limit to How Much Protein You Can Absorb in One Sitting?

The confusion is partly due to some very smart people who studied pee.

Nick English

Nick English

Jorge Gonzalez/Getty Images

Ever cooked up a solid pound of steak only to have someone tut tut and say, "You can only absorb 30 grams of protein at once. You're wasting that meat."

Don't slide the rest of that beef into the trash. The body, believe it or not, can handle medium-sized amounts of protein—and more.

Why Do We Think There Are Limits on How Much Protein We Can Eat in One Sitting?

The whole idea started with very smart people who measured pee.

Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, and some studies found that when you consume more than 30 grams of protein, the amount of nitrogen in test subjects' urine increased significantly. It was concluded that this means you're excreting the excess protein and you should stick to 30 grams per meal. (This means if you're shooting for 150 grams per day, you need five separate doses of protein.)

It sounds nice in theory, but the thing is that this doesn't mean the carbon is wasted.

"If you if you eat sixty grams of chicken breast, do you poop half of it out? Looking exactly like chewed chicken breast?" asks Trevor Kashey, a nutrition scientist and consultant. "No. The protein wastage thing was based off nitrogen measurements, but nitrogen doesn't contain calories. Carbon compounds do."

More nitrogen leaving our bodies doesn't mean you're peeing out your gainz with it. Protein also contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, along with other elements that still get digested.

Does Eating More Frequently Increase How Much Protein Your Body Absorbs?

It gets a little trickier here, and questions like this stir up old questions of whether or not you can eat one big meal or many small meals. This is a debate that's been raging between intermittent fasters and frequent feeders since the dawn of nutrition science, and it's harder to answer than you might think.

Does frequent feeding stimulate greater protein synthesis? It might, but in Kashey's words, "Protein synthesis doesn't tell you shit."

"It tells you genes are turned on, but just because genes are turned on doesn't mean there is a measurable or practical difference," he says. "That's why the 'anabolic window' thing is such a pain in the ass. People tend to forget that protein synthesis is for other protein besides muscles, and it doesn't account for protein turnover. That refers to the fact that we're constantly losing muscle mass, so just because synthesis is elevated doesn't mean you are netting any muscle mass. You could be losing as fast as you are gaining. That's called turnover."

So, it's not as simple as eating more often—bigger meals just get digested more slowly. (And let's not forget that going without food for a time can also have benefits for anabolic hormones, further complicating things.)

But while health-wise, you'll be fine if you have a couple of big meals versus several smaller ones, things could be different with regards to workout performance. For a lot of people, they perform well if they have a meal of protein, carbs, and healthy fats in the hours leading up to a workout and they recover better with another, larger meal afterward.

Is Performance More Important Than Meal Timing?

Anecdotally, a lot of coaches say people who have multiple, high-protein meals throughout the day have more muscle. But that doesn't mean much.

"Practically speaking, when the rate of muscle gain is considered, performance and adherence will trump the 'perfect plan' every time," Kashey says.

Are you reaching your daily protein goal? Are you reaching your daily calories? Are you doing your workouts? And do you feel like the frequency and size of your meals is letting you perform at your best? If the answer is yes, then that's far, far more important than how often and how much you're eating.

This doesn't mean it isn't worth experimenting with larger or smaller meals. Some studies show greater muscle gain with a couple of big, high-protein meals in a short timeframe, others don't.

We're not trying to oversimplify things, since biochemistry is an enormously complex topic. But the best way to answer "How often should I eat protein?" really does appear to be "As often and as much as makes you feel comfortable and perform well." So experiment and see what works for you.

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This article first appeared on Barbend.