How Much Protein You Should Actually Eat in One Meal, According to Experts
Protein is one of the four macronutrients that you need in your everyday diet in order to prevent infection and injury. Everyone's protein intake looks different depending on various factors, including age and physical activity level. However, there's one aspect that remains consistent, and that's the amount that should be consumed in one sitting. Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian at Orlando Health, and Cedrina Calder, MD, Preventive Medicine Doctor, and health and wellness expert, explain exactly how much protein you should eat per meal so that you get an idea on how not to overdo it.
So, how much protein is too much for one meal? Here's what the experts had to say.
How much protein should the average person consume per meal? In other words, how much protein is too much?
Both Calder and Mancella say that no more than 30 grams of protein per meal is ideal because excess protein will be excreted through urine.
"Excess protein consumption in roughly amounts greater than 30 grams per hour are not stored," says Mancella. "Protein is never stored, and it is never meant to be used for immediate energy."
By contrast, carbs and fat can be stored in the body for later use if eaten in excess. Have you ever heard of someone carbo-loading before a big race? The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which is then stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. So when you're engaging in intense physical activity, your body utilizes these glycogen stores so that you are able to withstand fatigue and finish the workout.
Protein works differently. Mancella explains that eating protein will not yield immediate energy like fat and carbs will, so the body redirects metabolic processes in order to create energy. The kidneys will then remove any excess protein in the blood. If excess protein is consumed regularly, the kidneys may become stressed. Calder says those with kidney disease may fare better avoiding eating a high protein diet.
"When we consume protein in excess, this adds more work for the kidneys to filter this through the body in order for protein to not build up within the protein," says Mancella.
So eating a meal that contains more than 30 grams of protein is not only a waste, but it also can harm your kidneys long-term. Trying to eat a high protein diet could also put you at risk of weight gain as well, and not in muscle mass. There are four calories per gram of protein. It's important to monitor how many calories are going in versus how much is burned through physical activity.
"With regard to fat gain, the human body will store any excess calories as fat," says Calder. "In other words, if eating a high protein diet increases your daily caloric intake to the point where it is higher than the daily caloric output, you will gain fat as a result. The same is true for carbohydrates and fats."
How much protein do I need a day? What if I am trying to build muscle mass?
"The Dietary Reference Intake is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound," says Mancella. "Depending on one's goals and current lean body mass whilst trying to build more lean body mass, protein needs vary. Typically, 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight is sufficient in combination with a balanced diet."
Keep in mind the DRI is indicative of the minimum amount of protein you should aim to get in a day. So, a 140-pound person who is active would need a minimum of about 50 grams of protein per day per this suggestion. If that same person was trying to build muscle mass, their intake would hover around 95 grams of protein per day based on Mancella's suggestion.
Aside from building muscle mass and promoting fat loss, Calder says that older individuals may benefit from higher protein intake if they are enduring illness or injury to speed up recovery. High physical activity levels could also require higher protein intake. Ultimately, the amount of protein you need each day varies from person to person and depends on several factors.
What types of protein should I eat?
Both Calder and Mancella agree the best protein comes from whole foods. Some examples of healthy protein sources include:
- lean meat
- nuts and nut butters
- non-processed soy products
The two health professionals also say that high-quality protein powders are a good way to supplement protein into your diet.
The best protein powder? One that's plant-based and contains minimal preservatives and sweeteners. Plant-based protein powders can typically provide up to 20 grams of protein per serving. Blend one scoop of protein powder with oat milk, berries, and a handful of spinach for a vitamin-packed, protein-rich smoothie.
"The use of protein powders is an effective way to help supplement your diet to ensure that you are meeting your daily intake targets," says Calder. "However, you should aim to get the majority of your daily protein from whole food sources."
It's important to keep in mind that consuming more than 30 grams of protein is too much for just one meal because anything above that number will go straight to the kidneys. In other words, you're basically throwing your hard-earned cash down the toilet if you're trying to ingest more than that within one hour because protein cannot be stored in the body for later use as carbs and fats can. So, instead of pairing a protein shake with a chicken breast at dinner, save the shake for after your workout or a few hours before. Spacing your protein consumption throughout the day is key to avoid having too much protein at one time!