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Understanding the Digestion Time of Protein Shakes

by Mara Welty July 22, 2023 7 min read

 person with invigor8 shake

Worried about how to increase your protein intake?Protein shakes are a staple to any diet that prioritizes lean muscle growth and weight loss support, performance recovery and overall health. In fact, they’re a particularly effective way to supplement your protein intake, particularly for people who have higher protein requirements or struggle to meet their daily protein goals.

A protein-packed diet can also keep you feeling fuller longer, compared to a diet that’s heavy in carbohydrates. That’s because it typically takes the body longer to digest carbohydrates; however, the exact time will vary depending on several factors, including the type of protein you consume and your individual body composition.

So, how long does a protein take to digest? Let’s take a look.

Protein and its Absorption Process

Protein serves a critical purpose in our bodies, acting as the muscles’ primary structural element. Protein is composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. When we consume protein-rich foods, our bodies break down the protein into these amino acids, which are then used to perform various functions throughout the body.

Without protein, our bodies would not be able to build, repair and maintain muscle tissue, a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This is particularly important for individuals engaged in physical activity, as exercise places stress on the muscles, leading to micro-tears that need to be repaired. Protein provides the necessary amino acids for this repair process, enabling the muscles to recover and grow stronger. 

Protein is not only involved in muscle structure, but it also plays a role in numerous other physiological functions. It’s essential for the synthesis of:

  • Enzymes
  • Hormones
  • Antibodies

These are vital for various metabolic processes and immune system function. Protein is also involved in the formation of connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments, providing strength and support to joints and promoting overall mobility.

When you consume protein, it passes through your mouth and esophagus and into your stomach, where the breakdown of proteins into amino acids begins. Digestive enzymes dissolve the bonds, leaving behind chains of amino acids (peptides). The amino acids then travel to your small intestine for further digestion.

In the small intestine, the chains are broken, leaving behind single amino acids and small peptides. These elements are then absorbed into the lining of the small intestine and transported to various tissues of the body through the bloodstream. 

It’s here that they can be used for protein synthesis and energy production.

So, how long does it take to digest a protein shake? The time it takes for the protein to break down and be absorbed into the bloodstream will vary depending on its unique amino acid composition.

Types of Protein Powder

Typically, protein shakes can be mixed into liquids, such as water, juices, or milks. These powders can come from both animal and plant-based sources, depending on your preferences. 

That said, there are three types of proteins that umbrella each type of protein powder:

  • Protein concentrates – These types of protein supplements contain 60 to 80 percent protein, with the remaining 20 to 40 percent consisting of carbohydrates and fats. This type of protein is typically digested within two to two and a half hours.
  • Protein isolates – Protein isolates are made using a filtering process, meaning there are less carbohydrates and fats within the protein mix. Rather, these types of powders are made up of 90 to 95 percent protein. Similarly, these types of protein powders are typically digested within two hours, although it may be quicker, due to the limited carb and fat content.
  • Protein hydrolysates – These types of protein powders are absorbed into your body more quickly than isolates or concentrates, meaning it takes the body less time to digest them. One study found that protein hydrolysates are rapidly absorbed within the first 15 minutes of consumption. Absorption then stopped from the 15-minute mark to the 90-minute mark, where the dietary protein was then absorbed again. This type of protein may also be more likely to raise insulin levels, which can aid muscle growth following exercise.

All that said, there are several types of proteins that can fall under these three umbrella terms. These include:

  • Whey protein – Whey protein is an animal-based protein source that comes from milk. Because it contains lactose, some people with an intolerance to sugar may have difficulty digesting the whey protein powder. The whey may also coagulate, meaning it stays in the stomach longer. That said, for those who can tolerate lactose or choose a lactose-free whey powder, the digestion process is usually quite fast. Whey isolate, which does not contain lactose, can typically pass through the digestive system within one and a half hours, or eight to 10 grams an hour. Whey concentrate, on the other hand, can take up to two to three hours. Alternatively, whey with lactose may be an effective method for those looking for a slow release of protein that gradually releases amino acids into the body. Whey protein may also help improve overall body composition, stifle appetite, reduce inflammation and support heart health. 
  • Casein protein – Also derived from milk, casein powder is believed to be absorbed more slowly than whey powder, taking three to four hours, with an absorption rate of five grams an hour. In effect, the stomach will slowly empty to create a more steady supply of amino acids. This can be an effective option for those looking to support muscle protein synthesis, or muscle strengthening.
  • Egg protein – Eggs are considered to have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS), meaning it’s high-quality and easily digested, with a 98 percent digestibility rating. This indicates that a high number of amino acids, including leucine, are absorbed into the body. That said, egg protein does take longer to digest, compared to whey or casein protein, typically taking three to four hours to pass through the small intestine.
  • Pea protein – Pea protein is plant-based and comes from the yellow split pea, which is high in fiber. Accordingly, pea protein is absorbed slower into the body than whey protein (albeit faster than casein protein) and may take longer to pass through the digestive system. It’s also considered to have the fastest absorption rate compared to other plant proteins.
  • Hemp protein – Hemp protein, which comes from the marijuana plant, is considered a well-digested plant-based protein, with a 91 to 98 percent digestibility rate, meaning the body can use the majority of the protein’s amino acids for various processes. This may be due to hemp’s high edestin and albumin content, which can both be broken down easily. However, it’s also high in fiber and unsaturated fats and is considered a slow-digesting protein, according to PDCAAS.
  • Soy protein – Derived from soybeans, soy isolate, has an absorption rate of 3.9 grams per hour, which can take roughly three hours to digest. 

Oftentimes, digestive enzymes are added to dietary protein powders to aid digestion and increase protein absorption, particularly if the protein contains lactose.

Protein Powders Compared to Whole Protein Sources

Different protein sources have varying digestion rates. Whole food sources like meat, eggs, dairy and legumes contain complex protein structures that require more time for digestion. For example, animal-based proteins like chicken or steak are typically digested over a longer period compared to plant-based proteins like beans or lentils.

Protein shakes, particularly those made from highly processed protein powders, tend to have a faster digestion time compared to whole foods. Whey protein, a common ingredient in protein shakes, is known for its rapid digestion and absorption. It also has a high leucine content, which stimulates muscle protein synthesis. This makes it an ideal choice for post-workout nutrition, as the amino acids are quickly available for muscle recovery.

Understanding protein digestion time is crucial for nutrient timing and optimizing meal plans. By considering digestion rates, individuals can strategically plan their protein intake to support their goals. For instance:

  • Pre-workout – Choosing a protein source or shake with a faster digestion time before a workout can provide readily available amino acids during exercise, fueling muscle performance and minimizing muscle breakdown. 
  • Post-workout – Opting for a protein shake with a fast digestion rate, such as whey protein, immediately after a workout helps initiate muscle recovery and synthesis by delivering amino acids quickly. 
  • Meal planning – Balancing protein sources with different digestion rates throughout the day can provide a steady supply of amino acids, supporting muscle repair and growth. Combining whole food proteins with slower digestion rates, like lean meats or legumes, with protein shakes or faster-digesting proteins can help meet daily protein needs efficiently.

Considering digestion time is also important for individuals with specific dietary preferences or restrictions. For example, individuals following meal timing protocols may benefit from protein shakes with faster digestion times during their eating windows.

Pack Your Routine With INVIGOR8 Shakes

How long does it take a complete protein shake to digest? It will largely depend on the type of protein. While fiber or lactose-rich proteins are often more difficult to digest, whey protein is still considered to be an effective option if you’re looking for an easily digested protein powder — particularly one that includes digestive enzyme complex, as well as pre- and probiotics. 

The INVIGOR8 Superfood Shake contains all that and more for an all-in-one meal replacement your body (and taste buds) will love. Available in four types of protein powder — Triple Chocolate Brownie, Natural Strawberry, French Vanilla and Himalayan Salted Caramel — this organic superfoods protein powder is geared toward fat loss and lean muscle growth. In addition to digestive enzymes, the Superfood Shake also contains protein powder ingredientslike green veggie complex, essential fatty acids, an immunity support complex and more.

Fuel your gains with INVIGOR8.

Sources:

Dioxyme. Protein absorption and bioavailability.

Livestrong. How Fast Do You Digest Whey Protein?

Healthline. The 7 Best Types of Protein Powder

The Journal of Nutrition. The Protein Digestibility–Corrected Amino Acid Score

Healthline. Hemp Protein Powder: The Best Plant-Based Protein?

About the Author

 Mara Welty
Mara Welty

Mara Welty is a copywriter who specializes in health, wellness and CBD topics. With a background in journalism, she aims to deliver engaging, research-based content that builds trust and engages readers through informative storytelling.

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