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Older adults may need more protein than younger adults to maintain healthy muscles.
We all know that protein is important, and that we need adequate amounts of protein in the diet every day to maintain a healthy body. It has long been assumed that once we reach adulthood, our dietary protein needs remain more or less constant for the rest of our lives. More recently, however, evidence has suggested that older adults may actually need more protein than younger adults in order to retain and build muscle mass.
Maintaining muscle mass as you age is vitally important for daily function and mobility. The exercise that you perform in order to build and maintain that muscle can also lift your mood, lead to better sleep, help with stress management and improve your balance.
But exercise alone isn’t enough. The body can only repair and build muscle when it has enough of the right building blocks—which come in the form of amino acids from the proteins that you eat.
Loss of Muscle with Aging
After the age of about 50, most people begin to experience the loss of muscle mass—losses that range, on average, between 0.5% and 2% of total muscle mass per year.
Part of the reason older adults lose this muscle is that they tend to become less active. Even when they do exercise, they may not exercise as hard as they did when they were younger. Since muscles are being used less, and with less intensity, it makes sense that some loss would occur. At the same time, the body’s ability to build muscle also slows down a bit as we age.
The good news is that a combination of resistance exercise and adequate dietary protein can help to minimize this loss. The body needs protein to manufacture muscle, and exercise increases the body’s efficiency in building muscle. Evidence suggests that in order to do this, older adults may actually need more protein than they did when they were younger.
Older Adults May Need More Protein
Scientists can study the effects of diet and exercise on the body’s ability to manufacture muscle—what’s referred to as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the process by which the body utilizes the protein you eat to manufacture the muscle protein in your body. While protein needs vary from person to person depending on factors such as body weight, body composition and degree and type of physical activity, your age also factors in. Evidence suggests that older adults may need higher amounts of high-quality dietary protein than younger people do, if they want to achieve maximal levels of MPS.
In a study recently published in the American Journal of Physiology1, a group of 20 adults between the ages of 52 and 75 years of age were randomly assigned to consume the Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein (0.8g protein per kilogram of body weight), or twice that amount for four days. The results clearly showed that those who ate the higher amount of protein increased their MPS. In other words, the rate at which their bodies built muscle.
It also appears that in order to stimulate optimal MPS, proper timing of protein intake matters, too.
The eating pattern of most people typically includes relatively small amounts of protein at breakfast and lunch, and much larger amounts at dinner. But there is evidence that a more balanced intake, in which the protein is spread more evenly over meals, is better for stimulating the production of muscle tissue. And older adults should aim for protein intake of at least 30 grams per meal.2
Diets of Older Adults May Lack Protein
Even if older adults stay active and engage in regular bouts of resistance training, the body’s ability to build and maintain muscle mass will suffer if there’s not enough protein on the plate. And there are reasons that older people may not be giving their bodies the necessary amount.
As people age, their calorie needs gradually decline, due to a combination of factors that include a lower metabolic rate and a reduced activity level. In order to avoid weight gain, many people cut back on their calories and eat less food. But without careful planning and the right food choices, a drop in calorie intake could mean that the total amount of protein they eat might drop, too.
When you look at what older people are spending their calories on, protein isn’t high on the list. Among the top 10 calorie sources for adults 70 years and older, the list includes bread, cakes and pastries, cookies, potatoes, ice cream, cold cereal, pie and soft drinks. Altogether, these foods represent more than 20% of total calories eaten.
Boost Protein Intake, Not Calories
When you’re trying to simultaneously control your calories and ensure that you’re getting adequate protein, careful food choices are in order. Reducing your intake of the many refined carbohydrates and sweets that are somewhat typical of the diet of older adults is a good first step. From there, you’ll want to seek out foods that provide the most protein for the fewest calories.
1Kim et al. Am J Physiol 2015 308:E21.
2Phillips SM. Sports Med 2014 441:S71.