Protein helps to keep our muscles strong, which is important for maintaining the balance and mobility needed to continue to live independently as we age. Yet, unlike with fruits and veggies, we may not focus on getting enough of this important nutrient. And recommendations on exactly how much protein older adults need vary.
The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight a day for adults over 18, or about 2.3 ounces for a 180-pound adult. But research is showing that higher levels may be needed for adults age 65-plus.
In our older years, we are at risk of sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass, strength and function. The essential amino acids in protein are key nutrients for muscle health, but older adults are less responsive to low doses of amino acid intake compared to younger people. A 2016 study from researchers at the departments of Food Science and Geriatrics at the University of Arkansas found that this lack of responsiveness can be overcome with higher levels of protein consumption. The study says that protein levels in the range of 30 to 35 percent of total caloric intake may prove beneficial, although the researchers acknowledge that level could be difficult to reach for many people.
People with sarcopenia may need 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg of protein a day, according to the Mayo Clinic; that's 3.5 to 4.3 ounces for a 180-pound adult. It is also important to eat the right type of proteins, including some that include the amino acid leucine, which has been shown to preserve body muscle. "Leucine is found in higher amounts in animal foods: beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and products made with milk. It's also found in soybeans and, to a lesser extent, other beans, nuts and seeds," according to an article on the Mayo Clinic's website.
The Cleveland Clinic polled six dietitians on their top four sources of protein, and the winners were:
- Beans and legumes — meaning all types of dried beans, split peas and lentils
- Wild salmon
- Greek yogurt
To find out your personal protein RDA in grams, Health.com recommends multiplying the number 0.36 by your weight in pounds and then doubling that if you're very active, or if you are aiming for "optimal protein," to help maintain muscle as you age and support weight loss. "In a 2015 study, adults over the age of 50 who roughly doubled the RDA (eating 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.68 grams per pound, of body weight) were better able to rebuild and retain muscle after only four days, compared with control groups eating the RDA."
Optimal protein works out to be about 15 to 25 percent of your daily calories, over a day, including 20 to 30 grams per meal and 12 to 15 grams per snack, Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut, told Health.com.
However, people should be cautious when making any change to their diet, including incorporating more protein. A 2015 article from Today's Dietitian notes that higher protein intake poses a risk to older people when they already suffer from some type of kidney function impairment. As with any health and nutrition change, it is important to talk to your doctor about your protein needs and intake as you age. Additionally, protein should be paired with resistance exercise to help prevent muscle loss, medical experts say.