Protein Requirements: Everything You Need To Know To Stay Lean, Strong & Healthy As You Age
Whether you’re lifting weights like a champ, doing yoga, or just want to trim your waistline, mainstream recommendations for protein intake aren’t going to keep you healthy, especially if you’re over age 50.
This surprises most people since they associate a high-protein intake with muscle-bound young guys, not grandparents or even just older professional folks with kids in high school.
But recent studies are calling EVERYONE’S attention to the fact that one of the most effective ways to stay young and avoid the creeping fat gain that comes with aging is to get enough protein—an amount that is probably closer to two times the U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 g/kg of body weight a day.
Pick A Protein Goal & Hit It Daily.
A recent 4-day study tested what would happen when healthy adults over age 50 ate either the current RDA (60 grams for a person who weighs 165 pounds, or double the RDA (1.6/g/kg/bw, equaling 120 g) daily.
Results showed that the more protein the subjects ate, the higher their rates of muscle protein synthesis (the process by which cells use protein to build muscle). This resulted in a greater net protein balance that was nearly two times that of the group that got the lower dose of protein. This is important because the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks that the body uses to synthesize muscle, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development.
Timing of protein intake showed no significant effect on muscle building, which coincides with the bulk of the evidence in younger people. In terms of how much protein to eat at a sitting, it appears that between 25 and 30 grams of protein in one meal will maximally stimulate protein synthesis in older adults. Therefore, it's prudent to ensure you’re eating this much at every meal and reaching your protein intake goal daily.
Another benefit of having high-protein foods at every meal, especially breakfast, is that you reduce hunger and manage blood sugar better for easier control over cravings and metabolism. This is key because aging is associated with blood sugar problems and insulin resistance, so anything you can do to counter this debilitating effect is worthwhile.
Understand Why Protein Synthesis Matters—it Keeps You LEAN!
If you’re like most people over 40, you’re probably thinking, “Does muscle really matter? I don’t want to look like a big body builder, but I do want to lose weight and be healthy.”
With the anti-meat movement going strong, most people think that protein-rich foods are bad for them and that they would do better off living on green juice. Research shows this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Optimal health for older people depends on maintaining muscle mass, which requires greater than minimal amounts of protein. Once you reach age 50, your body is naturally losing muscle mass and bone density due to what is known as anabolic resistance. In simple terms, this means that older people experience changes in digestion so that their bodies absorb fewer amino acids, reducing the pool of building blocks used for protein synthesis. Gene signaling—the process that “tells” the body to incorporate protein into lean tissue—is also compromised as we age.
Older people also move less and don't lift as many heavy things in daily life, which means that their muscles and bone experience less physical stimulus to grow and stay strong. In as little as two weeks, people who decreased their daily physical activity had lower leg muscle mass and experienced a reduced muscle building response to a high-protein meal.
The result is called sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss and it comes on fast and furious—inactive people who eat the RDA of protein can lose as much as 5 percent of muscle mass per decade after age 30. This has an incredibly negative effect on resting metabolic rate, which when reduced, leads to fat gain over time.
After you hit age 20, the amount of calories your body burns daily decreases at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per decade. For young, lean adults, up to 50 percent of body weight is muscle, but by the time you reach 75, only 25 percent is muscle. At age 75, this represents a decrease in energy expenditure of about 500 calories daily, resulting in a loss of muscle that is coupled with gains in fat mass without much fluctuation in body weight.
The greatest loss of muscle mass is from the fast-twitch fibers in the lower body, which is your center for power, balance, and strength. Muscle and bone are inextricably linked: Decreasing muscle strength leads to a weak, vulnerable skeleton. This is the reason fracture rates skyrocket in the elderly and often something as minor as a trip on the sidewalk can turn into a death sentence.
Lift Weights, Eat Your Protein
Just like eating protein triggers protein synthesis, lifting weights builds muscle too. Putting the two together can optimize health and keep you lean.
A review of the issue found that when people over age 50 got an extra 42 grams of protein on weight training days, they were able to build muscle to a similar degree as younger people. Overall, consuming the most usable, bioavailable protein sources such as whey protein with training increased muscle by 38 percent compared to a placebo.
A randomized trial provides more ammunition to get you lifting iron and taking your protein: Frail, elderly folks who increased daily protein by 30 grams for 6 months and lifted weights twice a week built a pretty incredible 1.3 kg of lean muscle mass. They also improved physical performance.
We’re going to get into the unique benefits for older people to include meat and other animal proteins in their diet in the recommendations section, but here’s a warm-up:
A trial of active women aged 60 and older who increased red meat intake, eating it at lunch and dinner, along with lifting weights twice a week, experienced greater gains in muscle mass and strength than a group that ate normally. Total protein intake was 1.3 g/kg a day, which is most likely close to the magic number in active, older people who are lifting.
It’s important to know that the experts are still out on the optimal protein dose for older folks, primarily because “high” doses really haven’t been tested. However, the evidence is pointing to between 1.2 and 1.8 g/kg. The following are some common sense protein guidelines from the research:
- For healthy older adults, a minimum healthy intake of protein is at least 1.2 g/kg/day.
- For older adults training for maximal muscle or to lose body fat, in the range of 1.6 to 1.8 g/kg/day is recommended.
- For older adults with chronic illnesses, 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg/day is indicated, with even higher levels for those with severe illness or injury.
- For older adults with mild kidney dysfunction, an intake of 1.2 g/kg/day is likely safe, though this should be determined with a physician.
- For patients with severe kidney disease, a lower intake is recommended (0.6 to 0.8 g/kg) with sufficient energy intake (30 cal/kg/day).
Eat The Highest Quality, Most Digestible Proteins.
Wondering what 1.6 g/kg of protein looks like in real food?
Well, if you weigh 165 pounds, that’s 120 g daily—roughly the equivalent of two eggs for breakfast (12 g), chicken or beef for lunch (30 g per 4 oz. serving), salmon for dinner (20 g per 4 oz. serving), Greek yogurt as a snack (25 g per 8 oz.), and whey protein post-workout (25 g), with the protein from nuts, seeds, and vegetables rounding out your intake.
This “menu” provides a nice mixture of rapidly digested protein sources such as whey protein and yogurt, as well as more slowly digested sources from whole meat. Whole meat is useful for satiety, whereas “fast” protein has been shown to limit protein losses in older people and it bypasses the fact that older folks aren’t always the best chewers.
You probably noticed that all of these high-protein foods have one thing in common—they’re from animal sources, containing all the essential amino acids your body needs for maximal muscle building. Animal proteins also tend to be well digested if you chew them properly and have healthy gut function—neither of which is a given for older folks. Therefore, it’s important to focus on chewing each bite 10 to 15 times and take digestive enzymes if you have low stomach acid.
What about vegetarian sources of protein such as seeds and beans?
You’ll be hard pressed to get optimal levels of the amino acid leucine, which appears to be the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables like watercress do contain leucine, but the concentration is miniscule compared to whey protein or eggs.
Additionally, the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources from beans, grains, and plants as efficiently as animal proteins. This means that an even higher total protein intake is needed to achieve the same physiological effects. This can be nearly impossible for older people to do if they have a reduced appetite or need to manage calorie intake in order to lose body fat. Therefore, it makes sense for all older people to include fish, dairy, and whey protein in their diet frequently for optimal body composition and health.
By increasing your protein to achieve the optimal dose, you can expect to see an immediate boost. Not only will you feel more satisfied and less distracted by food, muscle building starts immediately. Remember, in the first study mentioned in this article, participants increased net protein balance in just four days.
Favor complete protein sources and try to achieve the 25-gram dose of protein per meal. Engage in total body weight training at least twice a week and be sure to take whey protein post-workout for the greatest recovery effect.