Experts are Calling for Higher Protein Intakes for Older Adults
In my mother’s later years, one of her greatest concerns was falling. She knew that a fall could threaten her independence, limit her activities, and reduce her quality of life. Today, one in three older adults in the U.S. falls each year! A common feature of aging is a gradual, progressive loss of muscle mass and function, called sarcopenia, which can increase the risk of falls and difficulty performing daily activities. Loss of muscle mass can also increase risk of osteoporosis or porous bones contributing to bone fractures. The National Osteoporosis Foundation states that approximately one in two Caucasian women and as many as one in five men will break a bone due to osteoporosis. The good news is that there are lifestyle strategies to help older adults be active and healthy. Consuming a diet containing a sufficient amount of high-quality protein each day is one of these strategies.
The current U.S. dietary recommendation for protein is the same for all adults 19 years and older – 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day. This is 56 g/day for the average sedentary man and 46 g/day for the average sedentary woman. To determine how much protein your body needs each day based on this recommendation, divide your weight by 2.2 (1 kg equals 2.2 pounds), then multiply that number by 0.8. The current protein recommendation is a minimum level to avoid a deficiency, not an intake for optimum health.
There is growing consensus among protein experts that healthy adults older than 65 years need to consume more protein than 0.8 g/kg/day. A recent panel of international experts calls for an end to the current one-size-fits-all protein recommendation for adults. To build or maintain muscle strength and function into later years, the panel recommends healthy older adults consume at least 1.0 to 1.2 g protein/kg body weight/day, which is 68 to 82 g protein/day for a person weighing 150 pounds. Higher protein intakes (1.2-1.5 g/kg body weight/day) are recommended for at-risk populations, such as malnourished older adults or those at risk of malnutrition because of acute or chronic illness. While a high protein diet is considered safe for healthy individuals, it is not recommended for individuals with existing kidney disease. Along with increased protein intake, daily physical activity, such as strength training (e.g., lifting weights) and aerobic-style exercise, is recommended for as long as possible to help counter age-associated muscle loss.
Consuming high protein diets can also help support weight loss and prevent weight gain by increasing metabolism and feelings of fullness, as well as help the body retain muscle during weight loss, according to a review of protein’s role in weight loss and maintenance. In addition, research suggests that higher protein intake may benefit bone health, especially when calcium intake is adequate.
Make the most of your protein intake
- Balance protein intake throughout the day. There is some evidence to suggest that equally distributing higher protein intake at meals throughout the day (~25 to 30 g/meal) may help preserve muscle mass and function in older adults, according to a review of protein and healthy aging published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Also, evenly distributing protein intake throughout the day provides weight management benefits. Recognizing that people typically consume little protein at breakfast, increasing intake of protein-rich foods such as milk on cereal, yogurt, eggs, and lean meat at breakfast is encouraged.
- Protein quality matters. The quality of protein consumed may be just as important as the amount of protein to confer health benefits. Not all proteins are created equally. Animal sources of protein such as dairy foods, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish are considered high-quality or “complete” proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and are easily digestible. Most plant-based proteins found in vegetables and grains are lower quality or “incomplete” because they lack one or more essential amino acids and are less digestible.
The dairy advantage. Dairy foods are a good source of high-quality proteins, which provide all the essential amino acids necessary to build and maintain muscle mass. In milk, approximately 80% of the protein is casein and 20% is whey. Whey protein in particular is one of the best sources of leucine, a branched chain amino acid shown to stimulate the synthesis of muscle protein. Studies demonstrate the metabolic advantages of consuming dairy protein as part of a high protein diet for weight management, regulation of blood glucose, and bone health. Dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are nutrient-dense foods, which can help improve the quality of older adults’ diets. In addition to high-quality protein, dairy foods are an important source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, D, and B12, and riboflavin.
Bottom line. For successful aging, there is growing evidence that healthy older adults need more protein than their younger counterparts. Consuming dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt is a tasty, convenient, and nutritious way for older adults to help meet their increased needs for high-quality protein.
The following recipe can help older adults boost their protein intake. A serving of this tasty smoothie provides 25 g of high-quality protein and 15% of the calcium recommendation. For more recipes featuring fresh, wholesome Michigan milk, cheese, and yogurt to help increase protein intake, visit MilkMeansMore.org/recipes.
1 cup fat-free/low-fat chocolate milk
½ cup fat-free plain or vanilla Greek yogurt
1 cup frozen berries (any type)
1 fresh banana
¼ cup rolled oats
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend on high speed for one minute or until smooth. Pour into a glass and enjoy.