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.)
People who are over age 65 or in poor health may need a little more. “If you're sick or recovering from an illness or an injury, or some other period where you've been very sedentary and getting back on your feet, having more protein in your diet can help with that recovery process,” says Wayne Campbell, professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.
Research appears to support the idea of such protein boosting. In a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Physiology — Endocrinology and Metabolism, people over age 50 who did so were better able to maintain and rebuild muscle compared with those following the current RDA. A 2018 study published in the Journals of Gerontology that tracked almost 3,000 seniors over two decades found that those who downed the most protein were 30 percent less likely to become functionally impaired than those who ate minimal amounts.
Encouraging, for sure. However, some people do need to be careful when upping their protein intake, particularly those with kidney disease or diabetes-induced kidney damage. “In my opinion, protein needs should be individualized,” says Cynthia Sass, a nutritionist and author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Pulses — The New Superfood, who encourages people to meet with a registered dietitian who can personalize an eating plan based on their individual needs.
For ideas on how to work more protein into your diet, read on.
Make every meal count
Some nutritionists believe that when you eat your protein is every bit as important as how much you're getting. For instance, the typical American's intake is weighted toward the end of the day — say, in a chicken breast or fish at dinner — but this may not be the most efficient way to process the macronutrient.
"We're always building protein and breaking it down — it's dynamic,” says Rodriguez. “Spreading your protein intake throughout the day stops muscle from breaking down intermittently during the day.” A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those ages 67 to 84 who evenly distributed their protein consumption throughout the day tended to have stronger muscles than those who packed their protein into a single meal.
Older adults need 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal, along with 12 to 15 grams per snack, for optimal muscle health, says Rodriguez. To bulk up your breakfast, you might opt for plain Greek yogurt with sliced strawberries or a cut-up banana and half a cup of granola (about 24 grams of protein) or two veggie sausages and a side of scrambled eggs (about 29 grams).
Choose each source wisely
Yes, animal meat, poultry and fish are protein powerhouses. Dairy products (such as eggs, cheese and Greek yogurt), beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are also great sources. One essential amino acid in particular, leucine, stimulates muscle growth and prevents the deterioration of muscle as we age. You'll find a decent amount of leucine in chicken, beef, pork chops, tuna, ricotta cheese and pumpkin seeds.
Keep an eye on calories. Our increased protein needs can drive them up at a time when a slowing metabolism means you need slightly fewer. The good news: Studies suggest that protein is more satiating than carbohydrates or fat, making it easier for us to steer clear of processed foods and sugar-laden snacks.
So, what about supplements?
Protein powder, stirred into a smoothie, can be an easy way to help fill a protein gap in your diet — particularly for those who tend to skip breakfast. Just be sure you're using a quality supplement. Some can be high in sugar and calories; others might contain more fiber than you can easily handle in one dose. Sass is a fan of plain, unflavored, unsweetened plant-based protein powders from sources like almonds, split peas and brown rice. (A quarter-cup can easily provide 20 grams of protein.) “They are easy to digest and can be used in a number of ways, including blended into smoothies, or added to dishes like mashed cauliflower, butternut squash soup, or incorporated into treats like pudding,” she says.
Convenience aside, most people probably don't need supplements if they're consuming a healthy diet. It's pretty hard to improve on Mother Nature. “The food matrix can't be entirely duplicated in the form of a supplement,” Rodriguez says. Reach for a protein bar instead of a banana, for instance, and you'll be missing out on a variety of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Amanda Holliday, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, suggests supplementing your food with other food: “There might be better ways to build up protein without thinking whey powder. When making a shake or smoothie, add a tablespoon of peanut butter, add dry milk powder to soup or any vegetable with a mashed potato consistency, or put cheese on things.”