Protein’s Role in Active & Healthful Aging

  • Article
  • June 28, 2016

Earlier this spring, my colleague Mickey Rubin discussed the importance of high-quality protein to maintain vitality throughout life – from childhood through adulthood. Just as getting older brings changes in career, family and activity goals, it also brings physiological changes that may affect how much and what kind of protein is needed to achieve goals for a healthy, active lifestyle.

To help older adults maintain or regain lean body mass and function, here are strategies you can share in your practice and education that may help them reach their goal:

  • Amount of protein: Experts recommend adults over age 65 consume .45 to .68 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily (1.0-1.5 gm/kg/d), depending on activity level and health. For a 160 pound man, that translates to 72 to 109 grams of protein per day, which is well within the recommended range (10-35 percent of calories).
  • Type of protein: High-quality protein foods should be recommended such as lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs and low-fat and fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese to help ensure all the essential amino acids the body need are eaten. Dairy foods are a rich source of leucine, an amino acid known to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
  • Distribution of protein: Many experts now recommend getting about 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal to optimize muscle protein synthesis. Though most people eat a combination of protein-containing foods at each meal, this infographic shows what 25 grams of protein from different sources looks like.

Researchers in Ireland recognized and tested these strategies using dairy protein in a randomized controlled trial published last March -- and demonstrated a positive effect on lean tissue mass in a group of healthy older adults. Since the participants typically ate more protein at dinner than at lunch or breakfast, the researchers supplemented their breakfast and lunch meals with a mix of high-quality milk-based proteins for 24 weeks. At the end of 24 weeks, the protein supplemented group had a significant increase in lean tissue mass (most of which was skeletal muscle) compared to the control group who consumed a non-protein supplement of similar calories.

What can we learn from all this? Whether you are a health-conscious adult or a health and wellness practitioner giving guidance to others, optimizing the amount and type of high quality protein we eat and spreading protein evenly across daily meals can be a beneficial way – along with endurance and resistance exercise -- to preserve lean body mass and maintain an active lifestyle.