The benefits of protein are well documented – at every stage of life, we need it to support muscle health, bone health, immune system support, tissue repair and recovery. So why is there such a focus on getting enough protein as we get older?
Maintaining Protein Balance
Think of the protein in your body as a braided piece of rope. We need a certain amount of protein (or, in this example, a certain length of braided rope) in our bodies to keep us functioning at our best. The protein from the foods we eat helps braid the rope at one end, while the other end of the rope begins to fray as protein is being used or broken down in the body. When we get older, the fraying happens faster than we can braid, so we need more protein keep everything steady.
Why Maintaining Muscle Is Important
Perhaps the most well-known role of protein is to support muscle health. This is particularly important as we age for a variety of reasons:
- Older adults are more likely to experience sarcopenia, or the loss of muscle mass and strength.
- Muscles not only help us perform everyday tasks like walking and lifting groceries, but they keep us stable and upright. Weakened muscles can lead to an increased risk of falling.
- When muscles weaken, we can become frail. That can lead to a loss of independence, which has both physical and emotional effects.
The Rate of Aging Can Vary
A decline in physical ability is one of the top fears of aging, and with good reason. It’s about more than just not being able to perform at a level you once could, like hitting the treadmill each week or hoisting your grandchild in the air. As we lose some physical abilities, we become also more prone to serious injury. That, in turn, may also lead us to become more dependent on others to help us.
While aging may seem like a very gradual decline for some, in others, age-related changes can appear suddenly. Perhaps you’ve known some friends or relatives who seemed to have a quick, sharp decline in their physical abilities. This is often caused by an injury, like a fall, or an extended hospital stay.
While aging is a natural process, there are things we can do to help be our best selves as we age.
Protein to Support Independence
Researchers have looked at the role of nutrition in maintaining certain abilities as we age, like how the nutrients we eat can prevent muscle decline and help keep us physically strong. For example, one study found that older adults (85+) with higher protein intake (1.0 g protein per kilogram of body weight) tend to stave off disability and reliance on others, and remain independent longer.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The amount you need depends on many factors:
- Weight: There isn’t a single number or even a specific range of protein needed per day – it all depends on body weight. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This is a complicated calculation, especially since we often weigh ourselves in pounds, not kilograms! For perspective, a 150-pound adult would need 55 grams per day. However, this number would be too low for certain ages and situations, as explained next.
- Age: The older you are, chances are, the more protein you need. Because the RDA was based on research of healthy younger adults, newer research has found that the number is inadequate for older adults. In fact, adults ages 65 and older should aim for 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 150-pound person, that would be 75 grams per day or 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight.
- Health status: If you have a chronic illness or are sick, your protein needs jump to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight per day, or about 90 grams for that 150-pound person.
- Malnourishment: People with severe illness or injury, or those who are malnourished for any reason, may need upwards of 2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day, or closer to 130 grams for a 150-pound person.
How to Feed Your Protein Need
A helpful way to meet your daily goals is to space your protein throughout the day. Each meal or snack should include a protein-rich foods, like meat, eggs, dairy or beans. Protein drinks with supplemental nutrition are convenient ways to help get the protein you need, plus other nutrients that tend to be lacking in the diet of older Americans.
Talk to your healthcare provider for questions or concerns about any diet or lifestyle changes and to find a plan that right for you.