Dietary protein is often associated with lean mass, not only in older adults but also in people of all ages. Everybody knows that proteins are the building blocks of muscle. However, protein’s significance goes well beyond that. Protein is required for the vast majority of physiological processes within our body.
“The importance of dietary protein cannot be underestimated in the diets of older adults; inadequate protein intake contributes to a decrease in reserve capacity, increased skin fragility, decreased immune function, poorer healing, and longer recuperation from illness.” (Chernoff, R.)
You see, protein is a critical macronutrient and adequate intake is a must! For the older adult, the need may even be a bit higher.
Protein Need for Lean Body Mass and Bone Density
Proteins are the building blocks of muscle. Therefore, they’re also necessary to maintain current, existing muscle. If weight training is part of your routine, you should increase your protein intake. You must match the demand your body currently has (maintaining muscle) with the demand you are creating through resistance training to build new muscle.
Although further research is necessary to determine for sure that dietary protein could help prevent sarcopenia (loss of muscle tissue as a natural part of aging) in older adults, there is enough information to warrant an increase in protein intake in older adults.
Older adults who are also implementing resistance exercises into their routines may need even more protein. Personally, I’ve seen enough evidence that an increase protein intake will help improve bone density and prevent fractures, especially when combined with resistance training.
Importance of Protein Quality
Unlike carbs and fats, there are few ‘bad’ proteins. However, protein quality is important. It’s critical that you are consuming protein from complete protein sources. A complete protein source is one that contains all 8 essential amino acids (EAAs). These EAAs must come from food and are essential for all things protein related. They are a non-negotiable must.
Quality sources of protein would come from grass-fed beef and livestock, free-range and naturally fed chickens, wild-caught fish and whole eggs. You’ve probably heard the saying “You are what you eat!”
Well, that saying is not entirely true. The truth is:
“You are what you eat eats.”
The quality of the animals’ diet is directly related to the nutritional value derived from eating their meat. The nutrients the animal eats is stored in their tissues. If the animals are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, the quality of the meat will greatly suffer.
If you don’t believe it, go to your local super market and look at the difference between a wild-caught and farm-raised salmon. Often times, they will not put them side-by-side in the case. This experiment alone may change the way you think about food forever.
One thing you might want to consider is supplementing your diet with a quality protein powder. There are many supplement companies out there taking advantage of the market for quality protein powders. That’s good news for you! There are many quality protein powders to choose from.
When choosing a protein powder, consider the following:
- Length of Ingredient List
- A good rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients, the better
- Type of Protein
- Whey protein isolate/hydrolsate are great sources
- Avoid soy protein, especially males. Females, soy protein doesn’t offer you a much better service, so it’s best to avoid it all together
Protein Intake and Kidney Function
Many people fear facing kidney problems when told to increase their protein intake. This fear is self-imposed and is not based in any type of factual evidence. Now, if you have an outstanding kidney problem, you’ll want to keep a closer eye on it but there’s still much conflicting data that directly correlates kidney problems with a higher intake of dietary protein. When in doubt, consult your doctor.
Determining Protein Intake
Recommended Daily Amount (RDA)
The RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. For a 200 lb. man, that would equate to 72 grams of protein. Even in a sedentary individual, that is an incredibly low recommendation. The RDA sides on the side of caution by providing such a conservative amount. Let’s break this down a bit further.
72g of protein = 288 calories
For the average 200 lb. male, their resting metabolic rate would be somewhere between 2,400-2,600 calories. That means that the recommended 72g of protein would comprise to about 8% of overall intake. That leaves 92% of the calories to come from fat and carbs.
That allows 46% of your diet to come from carbohydrates, which aren’t even 100% necessary for you to survive. You’re looking at 276-299g of carbohydrates per day. For a sedentary individual, I would consider that to be a bit high.
If forty-six percent of our example’s diet is coming from fats, you’re looking at 123-133g of fat. Now, a sure fire way to gain weight is a diet high in fat and carbs. One thing that’s very easy to do when consuming high-carb, high-fat diet is to over-eat.
For athletes, recommended protein intake is higher with ranges from 1.2-1.6g / kg/ day. This is much more realistic even for the sedentary individual. The same 200 lb. male we referenced earlier would now be consuming between 109-145.5g of protein per day.
For the older adult who is still very much active and training similar to an athlete, the demand of protein would be even higher. Personally, I like to measure macronutrients by percentages. Protein should be no less than 30% of your diet. In some cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if protein demand came close to the 50% mark.
As vital as protein is to many different physiological processes, it sure doesn’t get much respect from the RDA. Remember, that protein is far more important than simply building muscle. Countless physiological functions require adequate protein intake. You would be doing your physique and health a disservice to not fuel your body with the adequate amount of protein.
Chernoff, Ronni. “Protein and older adults.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2004. Vol 23, Supplement 6, 627S-630S. doi:10.1080/07315724.2004.10719434
Phillips, Stuart M. “Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages.” British Journal of Nutrition, 2012. 108, S158-S167. doi:10.1017/S0007114512002516