Are High Protein Meals Absorbed Effectively?

Reading Time: 3 minutes Back to 3 minutes version

With the Ketogenic diet spreading all over the world like wildfire, understanding the machinery of the human body and what we absorb is critical. High protein-based diets such as the Atkins diet, Sugar Busters, Zone, Stillman, Dukan, and the South Beach diet plans have come and gone. Now comes the Ketogenic diet, raging through the homes of millions with the hopes of getting into better shape and improving health. There has even emerged a new diet called the Carnivore diet which is solely animal-based with extremely high protein meals.

The amount of diet plans pushed into mainstream culture is enough to make one’s head spin off in confusion. Many of these diets mentioned above have the same premise with subtle differences. The protein ratio may vary from 35% up to 60%, as well as the fat and carbohydrate guidelines. Many of these diet plans may give some useful advice, but some are done haphazardly and disregarding important research. It’s important not to pay any mind to trends, but rather listen to a consensus of sound and honest science. Unfortunately, not all science these days is honest. 

Balance is Key

The main issue with some of these diets is balance and absorption. We live in a time where carbohydrate consumption is abused at times. Moreover, carbohydrates can be very addictive, as the majority of junk foods are rich in carbohydrates. Despite this, there are several types of carbohydrates that are very healthy for the human body and help to keep an equilibrium. It’s about balance and the source of nutrients more than the actual macro-nutrient itself. One type of protein, carbohydrate, or fat source can have a dramatically different metabolic effect than another.

Completely forgoing and cutting out a major source of fuel isn’t a smart long-term diet plan. Some people may achieve good external results short-term, but harm an organ or system of the body doing it in the long run. Several studies have proven this with different diets that cut out a major macro-nutrient. While our macro and micro-nutrient needs will slightly vary, eliminating nearly all of a major macro-nutrient group can have consequences. The question with high fat and high protein-based diets is can you effectively absorb such high quantities each meal? 

Absorption of High-Protein Meals

The topic of absorption when it comes to high protein meals isn’t without controversy. There are different opinions about this, and possibly some variation within the truth. The actual amount each person can absorb will vary based on many factors, but there have been several studies attempting to understand this.  In 1900, a German researcher and physiologist named Carl Von Voit attempted to figure out dietary guidelines for the human body. He was one of the first in the field to establish daily needs and requirements for ideal balance in the body.

From his research, Voit came up with the amount of 1 gram of protein per KG of weight per day. This was based on the needs of factory workers. The research also showed that most of the body’s energy is produced by fats and carbohydrates, while proteins have a unique role in repair and nitrogen balance. This is why cutting out, or dramatically decreasing carbohydrates to such an extreme degree may change the natural role of protein function within the body.

A Controversial Change by the WHO

The World Health Organization have since lowered the recommendations to around 0.7-0.8 grams of protein per KG per day. Many have disagreed with these estimations as being a bit low for people having higher protein requirements. These approximations have recently been changed by other authoritative bodies, but the question remains, what do we absorb? What amount do we need for protein to fulfill its optimal role in the body in repairing, building, and maintaining the cells and tissues of the body?

Studies have shown that the estimates by Voit 100 years earlier were very accurate. A carbon oxidation-based method was used to determine protein absorption and utilization as well. The estimates by the WHO were found to be sub-optimal. Especially for pregnant women, athletes, and children. Most studies have shown that it’s somewhat futile to eat more than 25 grams of protein per meal.Protein is absorbed over several hours at a rate of around 7-10 grams per hour depending on the type of protein. A recent study analyzed the net absorption and retention of a liquid protein shake. It took over an hour just to begin the process of absorption! Some of the excess protein appeared to be excreted without cellular absorption.

Based on the latest research, it seems that that super high protein meals aren’t very efficient. It’s more effective to spread it out even throughout the day. Many meals on these high protein diets contain far more than 25 grams of protein. This means that you’re flushing money and protein down the toilet with each meal. Eating 3-4 moderate sized meals at around the 17-27 gram mark is more effective. Taking enzymes may also be helpful. Eating small to moderate sized meals also helps to prevent excess nutrients being stored as fat.