By now, you've probably gotten the memo: Protein is having a moment. Witness supermarket shelves full of protein bars, protein cookies, protein pasta, protein water — or all those coworkers touting the pound-shedding benefits of a keto or paleo diet.
Trends aside, experts say most older adults aren't downing enough of this macronutrient. A 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found the same. In it, researchers examined the diets of 11,680 men and women age 51 and older and discovered that approximately 46 percent didn't meet current daily protein recommendations.
That's troubling, since middle-aged and older adults in particular need protein to help build and maintain muscle mass, which starts naturally decreasing as early as your 30s. While you likely won't notice such changes at 35, a few decades later they can pose real risks. “Muscle supports our skeletal system,” says Nancy Rodriguez, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut. “When you combine loss of muscle with loss of bone, you've got the perfect storm to fall and fracture a hip or break an arm."
While it's not quite as simple as “eat chicken, get biceps,” getting enough protein in your diet — coupled with physical activity, such as strength training or resistance training — does help you maintain and even regain muscle. “Research shows that when older adults do that, they're able to absorb protein a little more efficiently,” says Sabrina Palmieri, an outpatient dietitian at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital. As a bonus, the lean muscle that comes from hoisting a five-pound dumbbell makes it easier for us to manage our weight, since muscle is more metabolically active than fat.
So how much protein do you need? The answer depends on whom you ask. The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight. But many physicians and nutritionists now think that this number may be too low for older adults.
Rodriguez suggests that consuming twice the RDA for protein — which would be 15 to 25 percent of your daily calories — is a good range for maintaining optimal muscle function. (You can figure out what your personal daily intake would be by multiplying your weight in pounds by 0.36; double that if you lead an active lifestyle.)
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