Did you recently turn 50 and notice changes in your body composition? Say, less muscle and more body fat? Or maybe you’re in your 60s, 70s or 80s and remember when you first started noticing these changes.
As we age, our body doesn’t utilize all the protein it used to in our younger years, and we start to lose muscle mass. In women especially, major hormonal shifts (progesterone and estrogen) happen around age 50 that slow down our metabolic rate and cause body composition changes. It becomes more difficult to maintain muscle mass and body fat typically increases. Caloric needs decrease, but protein needs actually increase.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein for adults 18+ is 0.8 g/kg body weight/day (to figure out your body weight in kilograms, divide your total weight by 2.2). However, one group of researchers (PROT-AGE study group) conducted a massive research review and found that the current recommendations are not enough. These researchers recommend that the RDA for adults ages 65+ should be higher – 1.0-1.2 g protein/kg body weight/day.
The latest research shows that older adults need more protein than younger adults due to changes in protein metabolism, as well as to offset chronic and acute diseases that often occur with aging. Older adults who are exercising regularly need >1.2g/kg body weight/day; older adults who have acute or chronic diseases need even more (1.2-1.5g/kg body weight/day); older adults with severe kidney disease are an exception and should talk to their doctor or renal dietitian about protein needs.
Even though the recommendation by this group of researchers is to increase protein at age 65, increasing protein around age 50 may be beneficial—especially in women—since this is when many women and some men start to notice their muscle mass decreasing. Plus, age 50 is the perfect time to start focusing on preserving muscle mass even if you haven’t yet noticed any muscle loss. In one meta-analysis, adults over 50 who ate 1.0 g protein/kg/day retained more lean body mass and lost more body fat during weight loss compared to adults over 50 who ate less protein.
Another big component of maintaining muscle mass is exercise. Older adults have to increase exercise – especially resistance training – in order to preserve or add muscle mass. The American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) recommend 30-60 minutes per day of moderate exercise or 20-30 minutes per day of vigorous exercise for older adults.
In addition, resistance exercise is recommended at least two days a week to increase strength. To get the most bang for your buck after a workout, consume protein within 30 minutes of exercising. This will help your muscles to repair and strengthen faster versus not eating any protein at all following exercise. Depending on the timing of your workout, you can eat a full meal, or a snack with 15-20 grams of protein like a FitJoy protein bar, whey protein shake or Greek yogurt.
Why is muscle mass important anyway? The problem with muscle loss is the higher risk for sarcopenia (degenerative loss of muscle mass after the age of 50) and osteoporosis. Sarcopenia and osteoporosis can cause falls and fractures, disabilities, loss of independence, and even death. Building and maintaining muscle in your older years is essential for good health and good quality of life.
So now that you know why muscle mass is important and how to increase muscle mass, where do you go from here? A good place to start is to track your diet for a few days on an app like MyFitnessPal to figure out how much protein you’re currently eating on average. Are you at least meeting the 0.8 kg/body weight recommendation? Are you trying to increase muscle mass? Try increasing protein to at least 1.0 kg/body weight and see what happens, then keep increasing as needed.
Figuring out the right balance of protein/fat/carbs/calories that works for your body will likely take some experimenting. Animal foods are the main source of protein in the diet—meat, eggs, and dairy. Plants are also a source of protein but are not as dense in protein as animal products. Plants highest in protein include beans and lentils, quinoa, edamame, nuts and seeds (and nut butters) and green peas.
For a 150 lb person aiming for 1.2 grams protein/kg, they would need to eat 81 grams of protein a day. They could eat 20 grams of protein at each meal (3 meals a day) and 1 snack with 20 grams or 2 snacks with 10 grams; not too difficult to do if you eat animal products. Just one 3 oz serving of chicken is 26 grams of protein.
Meal planning is a major help when trying to make sure you’re eating enough protein. Simply write out your meals for the week and make sure you have a protein, healthy fat, vegetable and carb from either veggies or fruit at each meal. Here’s a one day example:
Breakfast: 1 cup Greek yogurt with berries and flax seed = 22 grams protein
Post-workout snack: 1 FitJoy protein bar= 20 grams protein
Lunch: 3 oz grilled chicken on a spinach salad = 27 grams protein
Dinner: 3 oz grilled salmon with asparagus and sweet potato = 23 grams protein
Total protein = 92 grams
If you aren’t currently exercising, figuring out what exactly to do for exercise can be intimidating. Try to find something you actually enjoy doing so that you’re more likely to stick to it! Some people enjoy going to group classes, others enjoy exercising with a friend and some want professional help and coaching from a personal trainer. Find what works for you and get exercise booked in your calendar every week. To keep it from getting mundane, try to mix it up. Maybe one day you do Pilates, the next day you do a strength class and the next day you go on a long walk with a friend.
Exercise should be fun and enjoyable. Not only is it important for building muscle in your older years, but it reduces your risk of nearly every disease out there and improves your mood and mental health. Along with eating adequate protein, meeting the recommendations for exercise will help you to have a good quality of life and make the most of your retirement years.
Lindsay Nelson, R.D., L.D.
Lindsay Nelson, R.D./L.D., is a freelance dietitian based in Kansas City, Missouri. Most of her time is dedicated to her 3-year-old and 1-year-old boys, teaching them all about cooking, gardening and nature. Her husband and boys are great guinea pigs in the kitchen, always willing to try her latest food creations. On the weekends you’ll usually find them outside on a trail, hanging out with friends and family and always eating good food.