The older you get, the more protein you need!

Protein for ageing adults

Did you know that people over the age of 40 may lose up to 8% of their muscle mass per decade – and the rate of decline may double after the age of 70?

Advanced muscle loss, or sarcopenia, affects nearly 1 in 3 people over the age 50. Not only are muscles important for basic everyday physical tasks like picking things up, reaching for something, or getting up off a chair, but healthy muscles are essential for organ function, skin health, immunity, and your metabolism. In other words, maintaining muscle mass as you age is essential for prolonging a happy and healthy life, particularly if you live by yourself and you want to remain independent.

Muscle loss is an ageing factor that’s rarely discussed and people tend to accept its signs, such as loss of strength and energy, as a natural part of ageing, but sarcopenia is a risk factor for frailty and falls. It can occur as early as 65, but tends to affect most people by age 75, especially if they are inactive.

While the importance of maintaining muscle mass should not be underestimated in our later years, it’s pointless going to the gym several times a week and doing exercises to maintain muscle mass if you’re not giving your muscles the building blocks they need to be maintained and to stay strong and supple – protein.

The challenge of getting enough protein for ageing adults

It’s common that people eat less food with age. Contributing factors can be lack of appetite, changes to smell and taste, living alone, depression, little interest in cooking, or difficultly in eating due to teeth/gum or denture problems. Eating less or eating sub-optimally means that older adults often miss out on getting enough important macro and micronutrients, despite their need for many nutrients being higher.

Protein is a macronutrient of particular concern; several studies, including this one study group, have reported that elderly people consume less than the daily recommended amount of protein. Inadequate protein intake is closely linked to loss of muscle strength and functionality.

How much protein do older adults need on a daily basis?

  • The recommended Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for adults is 0.83g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
  • Several nutrition experts have recommended that elderly people should increase their protein intake compared to younger adults. The PROT-AGE study group formed by experts from around the world recommends an intake of 1.0g to 1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for seniors. This means:
    • A 50+ year old man weighing 80 kilograms should consume 80 to 96g of protein per day (which corresponds to 280-340g of chicken breast per day).
    • A 50+ year old woman weighing 60 kilograms should consume 60 to 72g of protein per day (corresponding to 210-250g of chicken breast).
  • Older women in particular, should increase their protein intake to 1.0-1.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

We also need to eat eggs, salmon, chickpeas, nuts, eggs and brown rice to get the important amino acid, leucine. This helps to regulate blood sugar, produces growth hormones and may help with weight control. The body can’t make leucine. It has to come from food. The amino acid transforms dietary protein into muscle and improves strength.

protein for ageing adults

Foods that pack a protein punch

  • eggs – 6/7g dose of protein each
  • tempeh – 70g portion contains 30.9g of protein
  • plain Greek yoghurt – a 200g serving provides 20g of protein
  • grilled chicken breast – perfect for a low-fat, low-carb, protein-rich (around 25g) lunch
  • almonds – 23 will give you 6g of protein (and 6g of fibre)
  • steak – 70g of grilled sirloin will give you 18g of protein

The NHS recommends that we should limit our red meat consumption to 70g daily or less.

Protein is very filling so you may not need to snack, but if you do, go for cheese or Greek yoghurt. To quickly convert protein into muscle, eat protein after a workout.

And don’t forget to workout!

Some of the benefits of staying active into our older years include:

Prevents bone loss – both men and women lose bone density as they age, with post-menopausal women losing up to 2% each year. Strength training has been shown to counteract this loss and actually restore bone density. Having stronger bones leads to fewer fractures and can also aid in balance.

Relieves osteoarthritis pain – while it may seem counterintuitive, moving more can actually help lessen the pain and stiffness of arthritis. Arthritis-friendly exercise includes low-impact cardiovascular activity, strength training, and range-of-motion exercises. Exercise takes pressure off aching joints by strengthening the surrounding muscles. Physical activity may also help ease joint inflammation and aid in lubrication, which reduces pain and stiffness.

Helps prevent chronic disease – exercise provides a protective effect against a host of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. If you already have a chronic condition, physical activity can minimise symptoms. It can even help reduce cognitive decline. One study found that participants over the age of 60 showed fewer Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers when they performed 30 minutes of exercise every day.

Boosts immunity – moderate exercise has been linked with a lower incidence of acute respiratory illness and fewer sick days off work. Some scientists believe that the anti-inflammatory effects of physical activity enable better immune function. Exercise may also improve the performance of immune cells.

Improves mood – simply put, exercise makes us feel good. It can help ease anxiety and depression symptoms, increase relaxation, and create an overall sense of wellbeing. Ideally, exercise routines for older adults should incorporate a blend of aerobic exercise, strength/resistance training, and stretching/flexibility exercises.

Try some of the following:

Yoga – yoga is a low-impact activity that won’t strain your joints. At the same time, it helps you build up your muscles, stabilise your core, improve your flexibility, and strengthen your bones. Look for an introductory yoga class in your area to help you master basic poses. Some yoga classes are specially designed for older adults and include seated and standing options.

Pilates – like yoga, pilates offers an effective workout while being gentle on joints. It focuses on building a strong core in order to improve balance and stability and has been shown to reduce the symptoms of arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Parkinson’s disease. Many of the exercises are performed in sitting or reclining positions. Pilates is a smart option to try if you haven’t exercised in a long time.

Aerobic exercise – adding endurance activity to your day can help boost cardiovascular function, strengthen lungs and airways, and improve everyday stamina. Walking, swimming, and using the stationary bike are all good choices for older adults. Thirty minutes a day is the recommended amount. This can include three short, 10-minute sessions spread out over the day.

Strength training – there are simple, low-impact bodyweight training exercises you can do at home to help reverse muscle loss and burn body fat. These include wall push-ups, stair climbing, squats, and single-leg stands. Some strength-training routines also incorporate light hand weights or resistance bands. Aim for two to three workouts weekly to reap the most benefits.

Here’s simple strength routine that you can try at home:

Perhaps it’s you who needs to consider how much protein you’re consuming / weight bearing exercise you’re doing, or perhaps it’s your mum, your sister or even a good friend and you’ve become concerned about how frail they look – whatever the scenario, I do hope this information has given you some food for thought.