Fewer and Larger Meals is Our Natural Preference

Yesterday, the Bodybuilding and Fitness website T-Nation posted an article about a study from late 2023 on the effects of a single 100 grams of protein serving after a workout. Back in the day, people used to have some weird belief that you could only absorb about 30 grams of protein per meal, which of course is extremely ridiculous (and we’ll get to that.) Actually, a lot of people who are oblivious to the use of simple logic and common sense still believes this, so in that regard, this study could be interesting.

Let’s see what T-Nation’s author Mike T Nelson had to say about it.

Mike begins with the question, “is there a limit to how much protein actually goes into your muscle tissue?” And then follows up with saying, “It’s not a 100% efficient process because building muscle is a slow and labor-intensive process. Research from the same lab estimated that from a 20-gram scoop of whey protein, only 2 grams is directly deposited as protein in muscle tissue.

Well, this all depends on the situation, what kind of stress your body is experiencing, if there is need of muscular recovery, and what kind of protein you’re consuming. Remember, protein is used for many things, not only for muscle repair, but also for building enzymes, hormones, other tissue repair and recycling, and of course as energy through gluconeogenesis – our natural way to produce the glucose we need at stable levels (which unfortunately is disrupted if you ingest toxic carbohydrates.)

The Study

Dr. Jorn Trommelen set out to determine if there’s a limit to the amount of protein your body can absorb and use for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or the process of stuffing amino acids into muscle tissue. He conducted tests on 12 healthy young men who consumed different amounts of a special milk protein at once. This protein contained tracer-labeled amino acids so the researchers could track them around the body and see where they ended up.”

If you read the study, Trommelen say that, “it is currently advised to distribute protein intake evenly throughout the day, with each main meal providing no more than 20–25 g protein. Though this makes sense based on typical dietary intake patterns in humans, it seems to be at odds with the feeding practices of many animal species in nature that consume large amounts of food infrequently.

Well, props to Trommelen for comparing us with animals that are hyper carnivores and feast on their kills until completely stuffed – as humans actually are obligate hyper carnivores, and it was not until the Food Industry revolution that we began to have more meals in a day through advertising, the greed of the industry, and making “food stuffs” readily available around the corner.
Having several meals and even snacks in a day is extremely unnatural and thus very bad for our health.

In nature, as a hunter and gatherer, a human would only have 1 to 2 meals a day. And we would also go days without food, as in naturally fasting. And later, even when agriculture began a few thousand years ago, people still only had enough food for 2 or 3 meals a day, tops. So no, it does not make sense to consume several meals a day or to “spread out” your intake of protein. And thus, it does not make sense that a human would only be able to absorb 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. If that actually would have been true, we would have died out as a species before we even got started.

So, to continue:

After lifting, the subjects received either 25 grams of protein, 100 grams of protein, or a placebo. They performed a single bout of whole-body resistance exercise taken to failure. Then, they received four stable isotope amino acid infusions using intrinsically labeled milk protein. They took a bunch of blood samples and muscle biopsies over 12 hours.”

The Results

Judging by this study, there doesn’t appear to be an upper limit to the body’s ability to absorb protein and synthesize muscle protein.
In fact, consuming more protein led to an extended protein-digestion period, more amino acid absorption, and ongoing release into the bloodstream over the 12-hour period. Furthermore, there was a dose-response relationship: the group who consumed 100 grams of protein experienced the highest muscle protein synthesis rates.”

Well, no surprise there as the body will always use what it has. The more you consume of what it need, the more will be used. However, if you consume too much, as in more than you need, it will be excreted and/or stored as body fat.

While it’s true that the 100-gram protein group outperformed the 25-gram group in virtually everything, this was done after a brutal full-body workout consisting of 10 submaximal reps (a ramp-up) and then sets done at progressively increasing loads until failure.
What we don’t know is if this prolonged response in muscle protein synthesis would’ve continued after more than one workout. Most likely, yes, but to what degree with a 100-gram dose? We don’t know.”

That depends on the “intensity” of each workout. If you have a progression model and actually outperform yourself each time, then yes, the stress will be greater and the demands on recovery will also be greater.
Someone only doing two muscle groups per session might max out their recovery with 60 grams of protein, but that is still a lot more than the silly 20 to 30 grams.

And with that said, this is only relevant if you’re a musclehead and want to get as big and/or strong as possible. What is really relevant is that large meals are just as effective and nourishing as several small meals, if not even more so. And that also tells us that we are meant to only have one to three large meals a day – and even if we exercise hard, that is all that is needed for recovery. And according to this study, fewer and larger meals are actually better for recovery than having several smaller meals.

Burning Protein

The amount of amino acids that subjects burned (oxidized) in the 100-gram dose was quite small. Less than 15% of the ingested protein was actually oxidized, supporting the conclusion that most of the protein was used to make muscles bigger. Score another one for more protein at once.”

Again, this all depends on the composition of the meal and any other available macronutrients (fat and carbohydrates.) And of course, it also depends on the immediate need of recovery and tissue repair. After a full-body workout, the need for tissue repair is great, and a lot of protein will be used for just that.
And with that being said, it does not really matter, as protein will always be used where it is needed.

If your body is healthy and running on its natural fat metabolism, fat from food and/or your body fat will efficiently be used as energy, and only a small part of the protein will be used for gluconeogenesis to provide the glucose you might need. The rest of the protein will either go to tissue repair if needed, or it will be discarded from the body.
When it comes to fat and protein, just because you eat a certain amount, it does not mean that your body has to use all of it. If not needed, some of the fat might be stored as body fat for later use, but excess protein circulates for a long time and is slowly used or even discarded, and that is why it’s difficult to gain body fat on a high-protein ketogenic diet (as in only consuming a lot of protein and some fat.)

However, if you consume carbohydrates, which turns into toxic glucose, which damages all your cells, your body has no other choice than to use it as energy (shutting down fat metabolism,) store it as liver and muscle glycogen with the help of insulin and as body fat. Your body needs to neutralize that emergency as quickly as possible. I covered this many, many times.

How Much Muscle Was Added?

With just a single dose of 100 grams, they calculated that 13 grams (13% of the ingested protein) was incorporated into skeletal muscle tissue. While that seems small, comparatively, this is huge. This shows that skeletal muscle tissue has a much greater capacity to incorporate protein (amino acids) than we thought.
Now, you can walk out on a hypothetical limb and compare that to only 2 grams from four 20-gram doses, which clocks in at 8 grams of new muscle tissue. Thus, this 100-gram monster method would give you an extra 5 grams of muscle.”

That is actually an extremely high protein turnover, and it only goes to show that we as humans are meant to consume larger and less frequent meals.
As a comparison, most of my clients consume 2 to 3 meals a day, and only animal-based foods; the only source or bioavailable nutrients and high-quality protein. And that means anywhere from 60 to 100 grams of protein or more per meal. Even before I turned to our species-appropriate, species-specific diet (carnivore) in 2018, my clients only had 3 to 4 meals a day, even the competing bodybuilders. And the fitness- and bodybuilding athletes always had around 100 or more grams of protein around their training sessions, as in “pre/post workout-nutrition,” of 40 to 60 grams before, and another 40 to 60 grams after (I did that between 1998 and 2016.) So, yeah, this line of thinking is hardly new.

Changes in Soft Tissue?

Yes, this study also demonstrated that muscle connective protein synthesis rates were higher after ingesting 25 grams and 100 grams of protein. This indicates an anabolic response in connective tissue, too.”

Again, this shows us that we are meant for larger and less frequent meals.

How Is This Research Useful?

The grand revelation from this study is this: if you’re planning to embark on an epic odyssey of fasting, it might be smart to load up on protein beforehand.”

Only if you think that fasting will make you lose muscle mass, which it will not, not unless you fast for 5, 7, or more days, and even then, it’s miniscule and rebuilt within days of going back to eating and exercising again.
Actually, it’s better to have a smaller meal as your last meal before fasting, so that you quicker reach the fasting state and begin to utilize autophagy, the breakdown and recycling of damaged cells.
So, if you want to fast for health and/or fat loss, do not load up on protein, but do load up on nutrients, as in having some organ meats and egg yolks the days leading up to the start of the fast.

Now, here’s the pro from this study – you’ve got more flexibility when it comes to the frequency of your meals. But hold on tight because it means you’ll be chowing down on some serious protein portions if you choose to go the fewer meals route.”

Well, for most people I would still recommend 2 to 3 meals a day, as one single big meal is too much stress on the digestive system. Some people who are very active might do better with 4 meals, just so that each meal does not interfere with their physical activity as smaller meals are digested quicker.

Protein Sources

For this study, they investigated a milk protein that consisted of 20% rapid digestible whey protein and 80% slowly digestible casein protein, so you could speculate that a more prolonged anabolic response to protein ingestion is unique to it being slowly digestible.
A study published this year by the same group showed no difference between whey or casein when given before bed, so it’s unlikely that you’d see a huge difference with whey. Other protein sources would most likely provide a similar response, but the data is even more sparse there.”

Yes, casein is somewhat slower to digest, so is cooked meat, while whey protein and raw meat is more easily digested. But it does not really matter, as we have an amino acid pool and proteins are used and recycled all the time. We covered this earlier.

Again, we are made to consume few large meals and then to occasionally fast as food might be sparse. The important thing is to get enough nutrients, and protein, on a daily basis, or on a weekly basis. For general health, well-being, and sustaining an athletic body, it does not matter much if you have days with a bit more protein and days with a lot less. It’s only if you’re obsessed with an overly muscular body and athletic performance that you might want to get enough on a daily basis.

And as Mike T Nelson summarized in his article, this study simply shows us how the body responds favorable to larger protein intakes, and that it might have potential benefits. And to add to that, it again shows us that we as humans are naturally meant to have larger, and thus less frequent meals.

Again, if you need help with transitioning to our natural way of eating (carnivore,) or if you need help with body composition goals or health goals, I’m available for both coaching and consulting sessions.

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