Protein plays an integral role in your health. The body needs it to build bone, muscle, cartilage, enzymes, organs, hormones and skin tissue. Its importance is well understood, including how the need for protein changes with age.
Available scientific data notes that inadequate protein intake, especially later in life, may cause health problems. When we don’t get enough, our bodies break down muscle protein and convert it into readily available energy, says Drew Hemler, a Toronto-based registered dietitian. This can lead to sarcopenia, a degenerative loss of skeletal muscle that can start as early as age 50. “The earlier we pay attention to the nutrients that we’re consuming and become aware if we’re meeting our protein needs, the better.”
Older adults with osteoporosis (a disease that weakens bones) who lose muscle mass may be at increased risk of bone fracture as muscles help protect our bones from injury, says Ingrid Fan, an in-store registered dietitian with Loblaws in Markham and Richmond Hill, Ont. She also notes a protein deficiency can affect your metabolism and compromise your immune system over time.
As we get older, the body metabolizes protein less efficiently, Fan explains. As a result, older adults may require a little more in their diets to compensate.
Increasing your protein intake
A 2018 study1 published in The Journals of Gerontology that looked at adults with an average age of 54 with follow-ups repeated five times over the course of 23 years, suggested that older people who consume a higher protein intake are less likely to lose the ability to function independently. The researchers concluded that the results are consistent with a large body of literature that indicates higher protein intake is related to lower risk of frailty.
Hemler says one way to help prevent unintentional weight loss or help minimize the progression of sarcopenia is to drink nutritional shakes, which can provide high-quality protein fortified with other micronutrients. “They can be a quick source of nutrition with no preparation needed,” he says. “Just open it and drink it.”
They’re ideal for nutrition on the go. One example is BOOST High Protein Meal Replacement Drink with 15 grams of protein, plus 26 vitamins and minerals in each 237 mL bottle.
Essential protein basics – how much should we eat?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for adults aged 51 to 70 is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you weigh 70 kg (154 pounds), that means 56 grams of protein daily. Active adults who regularly work out may need more – up to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to repair muscle breakdown that happens with exercise.
Some good-quality protein sources include: 85 grams (3 ounces) of turkey (25 grams of protein), 65 grams (about one half-cup) of black beans (8 grams of protein) and one egg (6 grams of protein).
Eat a variety of protein sources to get a full spectrum of nutrients. They could include animal-based sources like fish, chicken, lean meat and dairy as well as plant-based options like nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu and tempeh. One of the misconceptions around protein is that animal-based sources are better than plant-based ones, says Fan.
Although research suggests plant-based proteins are slightly less digestible because of high fibre content, she says that amino acids in plants are also just as bioavailable as animal protein. “They do the same thing, helping us maintain muscle mass and help keep our bones healthy, too,” says Fan.
If legumes are your main source of protein, make sure you couple them with grains. Rice and beans, for example, has been a diet staple for at least 10,000 years. There are good reasons to eat them together. A 2012 study published in Nutrition Journal2 found that the combination eaten at a single meal helped lower blood sugar when it was tested 90, 120 and 150 minutes after consuming. Black beans and pinto beans were found to lower glucose levels the most. On their own, rice and beans are incomplete proteins lacking essential amino acids. But when eaten together, they provide all that are needed.
Protein is made up of more than 20 different amino acids used by the body to create everything from organs to enzymes. Our bodies can make some of them on their own, while others need to be sourced from food whether it’s from a hard-boiled egg, peanut butter, turkey or a nutritional drink. Essential amino acids work together to keep us healthy.
From the role of amino acids to the best source of protein, it’s essential to understand changing nutrition requirements that occur with age and how they impact wellness. They help equip us with the knowledge to eat better, make good food choices and, most importantly, to help us live our best lives every day.
Presented by BOOST®/Nestlé Health Science.
- Protein Intake and Functional Integrity in Aging: The Framingham Heart Study Offspring, published by The Journals of Gerontology, September 24, 2018. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/advance-article/doi/10.1093/gerona/gly201/5106141 [Accessed September 16, 2019.]
- Bean and rice meals reduce postprandial glycemic response in adults with type-2 diabetes: A cross-over study, published by Nutrition Journal, April 2012. Retrieved from https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-11-23 [Accessed September 16, 2019.]