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The truth about protein requirements and absorption. How much do we really need?

Protein absorption is essential when weight training. Because it’s the nutrient required by the body to repair and grow muscle fibres. However, over the years there has been much confusion as to how much protein our body needs, and how much can we actually “absorb” in one sitting?

Ask the majority of bodybuilders and fitness fanatics at your local gym and they may recite the age-old belief that “your body can only absorb so much protein in one go.” They may even further their claim by saying 30-50g is all our body can absorb from each meal.

However, this is a myth. You see when it comes to “absorption,” your body will absorb all the protein it has to digest. This is because protein isn’t just “used” to build muscle, it has multiple chores to attend to within your body. From being a pre-curser to essential hormone release, repairing cells, building bones, cartilage, skin and blood as well as helping most of your organs function properly. So by the time your body is ready to start repairing or rebuilding muscle fibres, you'll actually be left with a lot less protein than what you originally consumed.

So knowing how important protein is within our body, if we were to say that we could only “absorb” so much protein within one sitting and that’s it, then the question would need to be asked: “how on earth are we still in existence?”

Take the cavemen, hunting for their food, when they were lucky enough to catch something they would have to consume their food in one big meal to last them all day. (No fridges back then I’m afraid. They had to eat it there and then.)

In light of this, that much meat could potentially provide 100g/200g of protein in one go. If they could only absorb so much in one sitting, then the rest of the protein would be wasted and theoretically their body would slowly stop functioning properly by day 2, because it could take that long to find food again. If no protein is being fed to the body constantly, then surely all the other bodily functions would stop working and they would cease to exist. But here we are today, sitting here reading this blog, thinking… “best go grab some protein.” ;)

Studies have shown that whether you have 150g of protein in one meal, or 30g spread out over 5 meals within a day, the nitrogen excretion (protein waste) would be the same. Interestingly enough, there would be no change in protein synthesis either. (Study published Dietary Protein & Nitrogen Utilization - The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 7, July 2000)

So now we know that our body will use all the protein we consume, the question remains, how much do we actually need when it comes to our training?

Well this depends on many factors: how long do you train, how often do you train and how hard do you push yourself? DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) suggests 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, the general consensus amongst many dietitians, doctors and coaches are that this number is way too low and it is simply an indication as to what we need to just stay alive, not to function at our optimum.

If we take the 60+, dietitians would often suggest between 1.2 – 1.4g of protein per kilo of bodyweight to be consumed daily. If you are training and looking to lose weight without losing muscle, then anything over 2g per kilo of bodyweight. If you have no kidney or liver issues, then studies have shown a consumption of over 3g but under 4g to completely safe for consumption.

So there you have it. Protein is an important source of nutrients for our body and it's function goes beyond just building muscle. Ideally you’d want no less than 20g of protein per meal and at least 2.5g of leucine (an essential amino acid found in complete protein) to trigger protein synthesis.

But remember, it’s not just protein that is needed to build muscle, you need good carbohydrates to fuel your workouts too, that’s also part of the process. Per 1 gram of protein is 4kcals, exactly the same amount as carbohydrates, so if you over consume and exceed your daily caloric allowance, you will pile on the weight either way.

It's not just protein that makes muscle. You need carbs too.

So always eat in moderation and if you want to feel fuller for longer, then as a suggestion (just a suggestion) why not increase the ratio of your daily caloric intake to be more protein based, say at least 40%. (Check with your dietitian first!) This is because your body has to work harder to digest protein than it does carbs (which is often absorbed on the tongue) and in response will likely release the leptin hormone which will make you feel fuller for longer.

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