These days we seem to hear sweeping statements around populations of people and their eating habits on an almost daily basis. One common blanket statement we are all too familiar with is that bodybuilders are the only people who should be eating more protein. While it’s true that bodybuilders need more protein, the over 50 population can also benefit from cutting into more steaks, scrambling more eggs, drinking more milk and making use of protein supplements such as protein powder.
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The need for more protein as we age is due to a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in fat mass in men and women over the age of 50 (1). So, while bodybuilders choose to consume more protein to ‘build’ their body, seniors require it to maintain their body. The loss in muscle mass is known as sarcopenia (Greek for muscle poverty): ‘Gradual and progressive loss of muscle mass along with lowered strength and physical endurance [associated with ageing]’ (2). These physical changes mean the things we take for granted like picking up the groceries, going for a walk and making ourselves a meal become much more overwhelming and our independence decreases. But wait, there is some great news! By increasing our protein intake and exercising more frequently, we can minimise disease risk at the same time as maximising our independence to do the things we love.
A word on independence
Independence is a broad term that can mean different things to us as we progress through different life stages. When we started walking, we gained a certain degree of independence. When we moved out of our parent’s home, we gained culinary independence, and when we got our first full-time job, we gained financial independence. A loss in muscle mass and function can affect our ability to walk, cook and work among other things we enjoy doing on a daily basis. In other words, we begin to lose our independence. So, if you’re over the age of 50, eating more protein to buffer this loss in muscle mass is something well worth considering.
Current intake vs. what is needed
For the average senior, diminishing muscle mass and increasing fat mass ultimately comes down to a lack of kilojoules (energy) and protein in the diet as well as decreased physical activity (3). It is important to note that illness or medication can also result in lower muscle mass and frailty. In these instances, it is paramount that you seek medical advice from a General Practitioner and/or Accredited Practising Dietitian. For healthy individuals, however, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011-12) reported that only 0.6% of males and 0.3% of females aged between 50-71 do not hit the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for protein (4). This is because the EAR is the same (about 0.8g/kg body weight of protein) from age 19 to 70, and is quite easy to meet for both men and women (52g/day and 37g/day respectively) (5).
However, recent studies suggest that older people are requiring more than this to recover from illness, to develop muscle mass and remain independent. Instead of the standard 0.8g/kg, research shows that 1-1.2g/kg body weight may be necessary (6,7). We need this extra protein to overcome our decreased ability for Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) and to absorb and process the protein we consume. This decreased ability means that our pool of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) is being taken from more than added into, so we have less protein available, which leads to an array of health concerns outside of muscle building.
Other functions of protein
Protein doesn’t just build and maintain muscle mass. The constant breakdown and reorganisation of protein forms structures like hair, nails and skin. Equally as important, functional molecules such as enzymes, red blood cells, white blood cells and antibodies for immunity and hormones (e.g. testosterone, which helps men and women build and maintain muscle mass), are all based off their own individual folding of proteins. Though, as we now know, in our senior years we’re more prone to a negative protein balance due to deficient processing. It's during this time when our amino acid pool gets picky about where the amino acids go and, as a result, some places in the body get deprived. When this happens, amino acids are spared for the ‘most important’ molecules, like white blood cells, to maintain our immunity and whatever is left is used to build muscle.
This is where a large part of the problem lies. There is often little left to even maintain immune functioning proteins, let alone build muscle. This combined with our overall decline in the ability to build muscle (known as MPS) is what makes it so challenging for an ageing population to retain muscle. What’s great is we can counteract this by eating (and drinking) more protein alongside exercising.
How to eat more protein
As we now know, it isn’t just bodybuilders who must consider their protein intake; those heading into their senior years will benefit too. But how do we place this emphasis without eating copious amounts of chicken breasts and egg whites? A great rule of thumb is to spread small serves of protein (about 20g) over the course of the day so it is easier to meet your overall target.
More often than not, we eat a carbohydrate-rich breakfast in the morning including fruit, cereals and/or toast. While these are great whole foods that provide micronutrients and energy, this leads to eating a large amount of protein (and total kilojoules/energy) toward the end of the day, which our body does not process as efficiently. By taking the opportunity to squeeze in some yoghurt with your cereal or subbing in some eggs, we can ensure our body processes the protein optimally while getting enough in total. If we follow the 1-1.2g/kg rule, a 65kg individual would benefit from 65-78g of protein over the day. The following protein sources provide about 20-25g of protein per serve and are well spread out over the day:
7:30am – three-egg omelette
12pm – 65g cooked beef steak or an 80g chicken breast
7pm – 100g cooked salmon
If this looks like too much food in addition to the other components of a meal, or the servings are too large, then don’t worry. You can add in an extra meal or two and decrease the servings sizes. For example, you could have a smaller omelette and smaller piece of steak but include milk with your breakfast and eat a boiled egg as a snack in the afternoon, so meals are smaller but are more frequently consumed. Alternatively, protein supplements such as protein powder provide a tasty and convenient way to support your goals. While this is much easier, strive for whole foods first and protein supplements as a healthy snack. This will not only give you the protein you need to support and maintain muscle mass but it contains an array of other nutrients to benefit your overall health.
What about exercise?
Motivation, misconceived unimportance and opportunity to exercise can all begin to decline with age, leading us to a more sedentary lifestyle. The Victoria State Government indicates that lack of physical activity is linked to around half of the physical problems associated with ageing; the first of which is reduced muscle mass, strength and physical endurance (i.e. sarcopenia) (8). It is particularly important to take up any opportunities to get moving to counteract not only reduced muscle mass, but other conditions associated with ageing such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and osteoporosis. The Department of Health provides the following guidelines for physical activity (9):
1. Any physical activity is better than none - if you are not physically active, gradually build-up to the suggested amount.
2. Strive to be physically active every day - this can be as little as walking to the mailbox and watering the garden every morning or taking the dog for a walk in the afternoon.
3. Each week complete one or a mixture of:
a. 2.5-5hrs of moderate-intensity exercise or;
b. 1.25-2.5hrs of vigorous exercise
4. As a minimum, do muscle-strengthening exercises on two days of the week - bodyweight exercises and tasks such as lifting boxes, plants and the like, all count toward this.
The Department of Health provides further guidelines regarding sedentary activity (9):
1. Decrease extended sitting time - even if it means standing up with your coffee instead of sitting down or, if you plan on catching up with a friend, walk and talk in the park instead of sitting at a cafe.
2. Split up extended sitting time - for example, if you find yourself sitting at a desk or on the couch for hours on end, plan to do the groceries or prepare a meal in between.
These guidelines were created by non-bias leading medical professionals to fit in with the lifestyle of anyone between the ages of 18 and 64. For the over 50s, following or exceeding these guidelines not only will help to prevent conditions such as sarcopenia but also improve quality of life and independence.
Various nutrition-related issues can arise in any life stage. For the over 50s, it is wise to think down the track as to how a loss of muscle mass, strength and function will impact your life and to decelerate its onset. By consuming 1-1.2g/kg body weight of protein per day and following the exercise guidelines in a way that suits your lifestyle, there is no reason as to why you cannot live an active and independent life throughout your senior years.