Here’s What You Need to Know:
- We lose muscle tissue as we age and this is not a good thing to allow to happen.
- To counter muscle loss, a high protein diet is recommended.
- It has been found that the current RDA of protein is only adequate to survive but inadequate to thrive.
- A higher protein intake, evenly spaced over several meals, with about 30-45g of protein per meal is recommended.
- Physical exercise in combination with high protein intake gives the best results.
- Supplements can assist those who battle with appetite.
Consuming enough protein should not be a priority only for athletes and the young and growing. Seniors stand to benefit from consuming higher amounts of protein too.
The reason for the higher protein recommendation is that at around the age of 40 the human body begins to lose protein, mostly from muscle. This gradual loss of muscle, medically termed sarcopenia (1)
The Consequences of Muscle Loss
❶ Loss of muscular strength makes it harder to do things.
❷ Weaker muscles mean that there is reduced mobility and independence.
❸ Reduced ability to maintain normal blood sugar levels as muscles is an important site of glucose uptake. This increases the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
❹ Muscle is metabolically-active tissue that burns calories. Losing it makes fat easier to accumulate. Although bodyweight may not change much on the scale, fat is being replaced by muscle.
As scary as this may sound, declines in skeletal muscle mass and strength are major contributors to increased mortality and reduced quality of life in older people.
The two proven approaches to fight age-related muscle loss are:
a. Consuming greater than recommended amounts of dietary protein frequently throughout the day
b. Combining the above with being physically active.
Why More Protein?
Dietary protein stimulates the synthesis of muscle proteins. This process goes on in full swing in younger individuals but somehow with age, the muscles lose the responsiveness to the stimulatory effect of dietary protein and thus cannot be maintained easily.
This phenomenon is known as anabolic resistance and is one of the key causes of age-related muscle loss, the other causes being a drop in hormone levels and lack of exercise.
What’s wrong with our current protein RDA?
The current recommendations (Recommended Daily Allowance-RDA) is currently set at 0.8g protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.8g/ kg BW/ day) for all adults regardless of age and sex.
Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all recommendation does not consider the changes in metabolism that comes with age (2).
Some avant-garde organisations like the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN) have established the following guidelines (3):
□ 1 and 1.2 g/kg a day for healthy older people.
□ 1.2-1.5 g/ kg/ day for older people who have acute or chronic illness
□ An even higher intake (2g/ kg BW/ day) for older individuals with severe illness or injury, or actively exercising (4).
A. Consume More total daily protein
A good starting point is to consume about 1.2g/ kg/ day. The higher protein recommendations do not translate into a lot more food. For instance, a 70kg person needs 84g of protein per day split over several meals.
If you have any kidney problems, we recommend speaking to your doctor before embarking on a high protein diet.
B. More protein at each meal.
While it takes an intake of 20g protein per meal to fully maximise protein synthesis in muscle, seniors need a higher intake per meal to experience the similar tissue-building effects.
Research has situated this dose at about 30-45g of protein per meal (5)
C. Space protein meals evenly.
Most people hit their highest protein intake at their dinner time meal. Lunchtime meal is a little lower in protein and breakfast is most often lowest in protein.
The current recommendation is to have 1-2 meals a day that contain the recommended 30-45 g protein per meal.
D. Look for high quality proteins
High quality proteins are sources of protein in your diet that contains all the essential amino acids to make the proteins within our bodies.
High quality protein sources also contain a lot of other nutrients and that includes calcium, iron and lots of other vitamins and minerals.
Sources of high quality protein might vary from foods that we traditionally recognise like milk and dairy products, eggs, lean meats, but they can also include items like beans and legumes and peas.
E. Get Active
Physical activity and exercise are important tools to counter muscle loss. Exercise is an important stimulator of protein synthesis in muscle and exercise in combination with higher protein intake gives the best effect.
Get clearance from your doctor and get help from a biokineticist to devise you an ideal program.
F. Food vs. Supplements
If enough protein can be obtained from the diet, supplementation is not necessary.
However, protein supplements, as long as you can find one without unwanted additives and adulterants, can help because they are convenient and easy to consume especially for those who battle with appetite.
Protein supplements are generally based on whey protein which is high in essential amino acids, particularly the amino acid Leucine which is an important trigger for muscle protein synthesis.
The best vegan protein supplements are based on pea protein isolate, brown rice protein or hemp protein or a blend thereof.
Use our Protein Supplement Selection Guide to find your way through the maze of protein supplements on the market.
About the Author
Veeraj Goyaram, MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude, BSc (Hons) Biology.
Veeraj’s passion revolves around researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. Veeraj was previously a graduate student at the University of Cape Town, where he examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.