We all know that protein is an important component in a healthy diet, but the amount we need as we age may be higher than previously thought. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published updated research guidelines concerning dietary protein and healthy aging. The study strongly recommends that older individuals increase their protein intake to 1.0 – 1.2 grams/kilograms per day—up from the 0.8 grams/kilograms per day that’s currently recommended.
Why is protein so important as we age?
The Harvard Men’s Health Watch says that we reach peak muscle mass by our late 30s, and after that point, we begin losing approximately three to five percent over each decade. This age-related muscle mass loss is termed “sarcopenia.” Although sarcopenia is a normal aging response, research has shown that older adults who strength train maintain more muscle mass as they age, in comparison to adults who don’t include strength training.
Dietary protein is another essential component to building and maintaining muscle. When your body doesn’t get enough protein, it can cause muscle weakness and wasting, leading to an increased risk of fractures from falls, especially in older individuals. In fact, people with sarcopenia have up to 2.3 times the risk of fracture compared to those with normal muscle mass and function.
Christina Lemon, MS, RDN, CD says that in her practice, older individuals often have a reduced sense of taste, along with diminished digestion, liver function, and ability to break down and synthesize protein. This can lead to poor appetite and diet, significantly increasing the risk of inadequate protein intake. To compound the problem, many older individuals reduce their consumption of meat to manage lipid levels and weight. But they haven’t made up the protein with enough plant-based sources.
Studies have suggested that increasing dietary protein intake as we age can help stave off sarcopenia. A 2016 study conducted by the Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas found that protein levels of 30-35 percent of one’s total caloric intake can help make up for reductions in protein metabolism in older individuals. In addition, the researchers suggest that protein sources that contain the amino acid leucine (found in animal source proteins, plus soybeans, bean, nuts, and seeds) may play a role in helping preserve muscle mass.
What is protein?
Protein is comprised of amino acids. They are broken down during digestion to provide the building materials needed to maintain many physiological functions, including muscle building. We can synthesize 11 of the 21 amino acids needed, but the nine essential amino acids that we can’t synthesize need to come from our diet.
Animal-based proteins are considered a “complete protein,” because they include the essential nine amino acids. Plant-based protein sources typically don’t contain all the essential amino acids (except for soy and quinoa, which do) and unless you pair these incomplete protein sources with one that provides the missing amino acids you won’t be getting a complete protein. Read on to learn how to pair up plant protein sources.
How much protein should I eat?
The equation for determining optimal protein intake for your body size is by multiplying 1.0 – 1.2 with your weight in kilograms. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, that converts to 63.5 kilograms. You would then multiply both 1.0 and 1.2 (separately) by your weight in kilograms, to determine that your protein intake range is approximately 64 – 76 grams per day. If you are more sedentary, choose the lower end. If you’re very active and strength train regularly, shoot for the higher end of the range.
The key to achieving optimal protein metabolism is by including 20+ grams of protein into each meal. Animal protein sources provide all the essential amino acids, so if you eat meat, it’s easier to ensure that you’re getting complete protein in your diet. But, if you avoid meat or other animal sources of protein, you can achieve your intake goal by eating a variety of high protein plant sources.
What type of protein should I eat?
If you include meat in your diet, look for lean cuts. To be considered lean, a cut of beef should contain less than ten grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and no more than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. The amount of protein for each type of meat depends on the serving size and preparation method (see below). Avoid cooking in oils—broiling, baking, and grilling methods are best.
Choose from the following cuts:
- Top Sirloin Steak
- Strip Steak (New York Strip)
- Tenderloin Steak
- 95% Lean Ground Beef
Pork is as lean as skinless chicken breast and fits the guideline for lean. Choose any loin cuts for a very lean serving of meat.
- Pork Tenderloin
- Loin Pork Chops
- Loin Pork Roast
- Skinless cuts
Choose low-fat or nonfat, when possible
- Milk: 8 grams per cup
- Yogurt: can vary depending on the type
- Cheese: 7 grams per ounce
- Eggs: 6 grams per egg
Plant-based Protein Sources
Keep in mind that when you are getting your protein from plant sources, you need to make sure that it’s in a combination that provides all the essential amino acids. For example, combining rice with beans, peas, or lentils provides all the essential amino acids needed for a complete protein. Think legumes with grains, or with nuts or seeds. Of course adding milk, eggs, or meat sources with plant provides complete protein.
- Edamame: 18 grams per one cup cooked
- Tempeh: 16 grams per 3 ounces
- Tofu: 8 grams per 3 ounce serving
- Lentils: 9 grams per ½ cup
- Black beans: 7 grams per ½ cup cooked
- Lima beans: 7 grams per ½ cooked
- Peanuts 7 grams per ½ cup
- Peanut butter: 7 grams per 2 Tbsp
- Wild rice: 6.5 grams per 1 cup cooked
- Chickpeas: 6 grams per ½ cup
- Almonds: 6 grams per ¼ cup
- Chia seeds: 6 grams per 2 Tbsp
- Steel cut oats: 5 grams per ¼ cup dry
- Cashews: 5 grams per ¼ cup
- Pumpkin seeds: 5 grams per ¼ cup
- Potatoes: 4 grams per 1 medium white potato
- Spinach: 3 grams per ½ cup cooked
- Avocado: 4 grams per one avocado
- Broccoli: 2 grams per ½ cup cooked
- Brussels sprouts: 2 grams per ½ cup
What about protein supplements or bars?
Another easy way to up your protein intake, especially if you’re not able to sit down for a meal, is with high protein drinks or bars. Just make sure that they’re not adding a lot of sugar along with the protein. Reading labels is crucial for determining which supplement or bar offers real nutrition instead of excess sugars and other fillers.
The supplement or bar protein sources can vary from soy, milk, egg, whey, pea, rice, or hemp protein. Choosing which type depends on your dietary preferences, as well as what kind your body can easily digest. For those who have gastrointestinal problems, such as an irritable bowel or lactose intolerance, avoid lactose based protein (from milk or whey) or soy, if beans cause GI distress.
If you love to snack on protein bars, keep in mind that many of them are candy bars in disguise. Look for bars that contain at least ten grams of protein, 15 grams or less of sugar, no more than four grams of fat, and a caloric content of 350 calories or less. Fiber is a great addition so check if that’s in the mix, as well.
Something as simple as increasing your daily protein intake can make a significant difference in how your body ages. Maintaining your muscle mass throughout your lifetime can help you continue to be active and strong.