It would seem logical that the more protein you pack away during a meal, the bigger your muscles would grow.
But your body doesn’t work that way. There’s a certain amount of protein your muscles can absorb in one sitting.
“Skeletal muscle protein synthesis is maximized by 25 to 35 grams of high-quality protein during a meal,” says Doug Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch.“Protein synthesis” is basically a fancy way of saying “building and repairing muscle.” Exercise creates microtears in your muscles. The harder you work, the more tears. Protein helps repair these tears, causing your muscles to grow bigger and stronger.
If your muscles receive fewer than 25 grams of protein in a sitting, however, muscle tears brought on by exercise persist due to lack of building materials.
But if your muscles receive more than 35 grams of protein, they have all the building materials they need and the protein goes to other parts of your body—or into the toilet. (For a deep dive into workout nutrition, check out What and When You Should Eat to Build Muscle.)
The magic amount of protein your muscles are capable of absorbing during a meal seems to be about 25 to 35 grams.
You could get that from:
1 cup cottage cheese (28 grams protein)
1 cup Greek yogurt plus a handful of nuts (25g)
A palm size portion of steak, fish and/or poultry (28g)
3 whole eggs + 3 egg whites (27g)
1 scoop of whey protein (25 g) (Use the scoop in any of these 20 Healthy, Protein-Packed Shakes.)
So chewing through an entire side of beef may not benefit your muscles any more than taking down a smaller portion of tenderloin.
In fact, if you’re piling your plate with too much protein, you might be pushing other vital nutrients out of your diet from foods such as vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains, that can help with muscle recovery and weight loss.
And you don’t have to down a huge shake or omelet after a workout. Studies on protein timing show muscles’ elevated sensitivity to protein lasts at least 24 hours, says Alan Aragon, M.S., Men’s Health nutrition advisor.
In fact, one 2012 review study by McMaster University showed that muscle protein synthesis may continue for 24 to 48 hours post-workout. “The effect is higher immediately after exercise and diminishes over time, but that certainly doesn’t imply a magical window closes after an hour,” says Aragon.
What matters most is your total protein intake throughout the day. Reframe how you think about protein, especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Instead of eating 60 grams of protein during three meals a day, trying eating 25 to 35 grams of protein four or more times a day. Consume one of these meals within one to two hours pre- and –post workout so you cover your bases, says Aragon.