Feature StoriesHealth & Wellness

Power up With Protein

All older adults strive to maintain their independence and quality of life. But one threat can stand in their way: the progressive loss of muscle mass, strength, and function that occur with aging, known as sarcopenia. Loss of muscle mass and frailty has long been thought to be an inevitable consequence of aging. However seniors can take steps to minimize the effect of sarcopenia, including getting the right amount of protein in their diets and maintaining an active lifestyle.

A high protein diet is vital for older adults

Understanding Proteins

What exactly are proteins? Proteins are made up of amino acids which are organic compounds necessary to maintain health. The body needs 20 different amino acids to function properly. Although all 20 amino acids are important for health, only nine are classified as essential- meaning the body is not able to manufacture them and they must be obtained through food. When we eat protein, it’s broken down into amino acids, which are then used to build or repair muscles and tissues, synthesis hormones and enzymes; as well as regulate immune function among other important roles.

There are many factors that impact seniors’ ability to maintain their muscle mass as they age. For one, compared to younger adults, studies show that older adults eat less protein. At the same time, older adults need more protein than do younger adults. The result is an imbalance between protein supply and protein need and can result in the loss of muscle mass and strength.

Older Adults Need More Protein

Let’s break these down: First, why do older adults need more protein? Normally, eating protein stimulates muscle synthesis and/or suppresses muscle breakdown. Research shows that this mechanism is altered in older adults and that they have a reduced sensitivity to amino acids called “anabolic resistance.” The good news is that this lack of sensitivity can be overcome by eating more protein. 

Second, why do older adults eat less protein than what they need? With aging, appetites naturally decline and research shows older adults eat less food than they used to. Other reasons why seniors eat less food include: medical and mental conditions that lead to poor appetite, limited ability to shop and prepare food, as well as food insecurity due to financial and social limitations.  

So how much protein should older adults eat to help maintain their muscles’ health? Scientists are still debating the exact amount, but it is clear that seniors need more than what is currently recommended for younger adults (0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight). The general consensus is between 1 and 1.5 g per kg of body weight per day. This means between 64 and 95 g for a 140 pound woman and between 86 and 130 g protein for a 190 pound man.

What are the best sources of protein? Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are called “complete proteins” and include: meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, as well as plant sources such as soy foods, quinoa and buckwheat. Other plant sources of protein like beans/legumes, nuts, and grains contain incomplete protein because they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. For those following a plant-based diet, it is still possible to ensure proper intake of all essential amino acids as long as the protein comes from a variety of sources throughout the day.

Take a look at the table below for best sources of protein and amount in a typical serving.

Plant-based:   Animal-based:  
3/4 cup tofu* 19 g 3 oz. chicken* 23 g
1/2 cup cooked soybeans* 15 g 3 oz. pork* 22 g
1/2 cup cooked lentils 9 g 3 oz. beef* 21 g
2 tbsp. peanut butter 7 g 3 oz. shrimp* 19 g
1/2 cup cooked beans 7 g 1 cup Greek yogurt* 19 g
1 oz. nuts 6 g 3 oz. salmon* 17 g
1/4 cup hummus 5 g 1 cup milk* 8 g
2 tbsp. seeds 4 g 1 egg* 7 g
1/2 cup cooked quinoa* 4 g 1 oz. cheese* 7 g
1 cup almond milk 1 g    

* complete protein                                                      Source: Cancerdietitian.com

Ensuring the right intake of protein is not the only way to make sure seniors maintain healthy muscles. Older adults can benefit from resistance training to increase muscle strength, improve functional ability and prevent falls. Resistance training is any exercise that causes the muscles to contract against an external resistance (such as dumbbells, rubber tubes or the body’s own weight) with the expectation of increases in strength, tone, mass, and/or endurance. It is recommended on most days of the week, but a minimum of three times per week is suggested to slow muscle loss and prevent sarcopenia. When combining good protein intake and exercise, a synergistic effect is created and results in increased strength, physical independence, and well-being.

Summary

To wrap up, physical decline due to shrinking muscle mass does not have to be a necessary part of aging. Steps can be taken to maintain muscle strength and ability to do the things we all want to do! These include:

  • Eating a source of high quality protein at each meal or snack. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you will need to pay special attention to include a variety of plant-based protein in sufficient quantity throughout the day. Consult a dietitian if you are not sure you are getting enough.
  • Staying physically active! Include resistance training at least 3 days per week. Endurance, flexibility and balance exercises are also important- consult with your physician or an exercise expert to find out how much and what exercise is best for you, especially if you have not been active for a while.  

Brigitte Harton is a consultant registered dietitian at Age Well and a Board Certified Wellness Coach. You can reach her at bharton@agewellvt.org . For more information about the services Age Well provides call 800.642.5119 or visit AgeWellVT.org.

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