Protein is important for health at all ages, but especially so when we’re older.
Eating the right amount of protein, at the right times, is key for preserving muscle mass and muscle strength as you age. And that’s crucial for maintaining independence and quality of life.
Yet, older adults turn protein into muscle less efficiently and need to eat more of it to support muscle health, a task that can be challenging for some. Reduced appetite, chewing difficulties and social isolation can reduce food intake.
Here’s a primer to help optimize your protein intake.
Protein, resistance training and healthy aging
Age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, doesn’t begin when you’re age 65, or 50 for that matter. After age 30, you begin to naturally lose muscle at a rate of three to five per cent every decade. Early changes may be subtle in your 40s or 50s, but sarcopenia can be debilitating for older adults.
Advanced declines in muscle mass and strength can affect daily activities such as getting out of a chair, lifting a bag of groceries or walking up a flight of stairs. Sarcopenia also predisposes older adults to falls and bone fractures.
While consuming enough protein is necessary to build and repair muscle, resistance training is the most potent stimulus of muscle protein synthesis. Resistance training is any type of exercise that forces your skeletal muscles to contract, such as free weights, weight machines, resistance bands and whole body exercises.
Research has demonstrated that done two to three days a week, resistance exercises build muscle mass and strength, preserve bone density and maintain independence and vitality with age.
Protein does more than help slow age-related muscle loss. It also helps maintain healthy bones and a strong immune system. Amino acids from protein foods are also used to make hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and many other body compounds.
How much protein?
The official daily recommended intake for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2. pounds) of body weight, an amount that’s necessary to prevent a protein deficiency. But many experts agree that this isn’t enough for older adults to maintain muscle mass and function.
According to Stuart Phillips, a professor in kinesiology at McMaster University and a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Skeletal Muscle Health and Aging, healthy older adults should aim for 1.2 g protein per kg body weight daily.
For a 77-kilogram (170-pound) person, that translates into 93 g of protein per day. For perspective, three ounces of chicken have 27 g, three ounces of salmon have 19, one cup Greek yogurt has 24, one-half-cup lentils has 9, one-quarter-cup of pumpkin seeds has 9, one egg has 6 and one cup oatmeal has 4.
If you do resistance training, Phillips advises trying to reach 1.6 g of protein per kg each day. That’s an additional 30 g of protein for a 77-kg person.
Older adults who are undernourished or have an illness would benefit from consuming 1.2 to 1.6 g protein per kg a day.
Eating more protein is not enough, though. Older adults also need to spread their protein intake evenly during the day to optimize muscle mass and strength.
Doing so, research has found, is associated with higher muscle strength scores, compared to skewing protein intake to dinner. Eating too little protein at breakfast and lunch won’t adequately prime muscles to take up amino acids.
Divide your daily protein requirement by the number of meals you eat in a day. If you eat three meals and need 90 g of protein, for instance, include 30 grams at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Food versus powder
Most people can get all the protein they need from diet alone. Along with amino acids, protein-rich foods also contribute essential nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin D and fibre.
While protein powders don’t offer the package of nutrients that whole foods do, they may be useful for individuals who have a decreased appetite or difficulty eating.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.
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