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Is a High Protein Diet the Fountain of Youth for Seniors?

Upping Your Protein Intake May Help Stave off Age-Related Decline

If you’re like me, you’re hoping to maintain a great quality of life and the ability to be as active as possible right through your golden years. Unfortunately, aging can get in the way of these goals since we tend to lose muscle mass as we get older (especially after the age of 50). The loss of muscle mass, or sarcopenia, is common in elderly folks, and it can significantly impair the ability to live independently. Sarcopenia increases the risk of falling and hip fractures and contributes to poor health outcomes [1]. While we can’t stop the years from passing by, we may be able to offset some of the effects of aging by simply prioritizing muscle health with dietary protein and resistance training.  

As a food-first provider, I already knew protein was important. But after my very enlightening discussion with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, a physician specializing in muscle-centric medicine, I started looking at protein a little differently, especially as it relates to aging. I know it may sound too good to be true, but optimal protein intake may be the most well-kept secret for healthy aging.

In this article, I’ll share why protein is so important, what the research says about protein for seniors, and how you can calculate your own protein needs for each stage of your life. Before we get into the background on protein, though, let me give you some practical steps seniors (and all of us) can use to protect precious muscle mass.

Protein Tips for Seniors

Low protein intake is one major contributor to sarcopenia in older people. Sarcopenia increases the risk of falls, fractures, infections, and complications or death from chronic diseases or surgical procedures, so it’s definitely something we want to avoid [2]. Not that protein is a panacea, but eating more of it, especially in combination with a regular resistance training program, has the potential to help us stay livelier for longer, and that’s one goal we can all get behind. 

If this sounds great, but you’re wondering where to start, here are some simple steps: 

  1. Calculate your protein needs. Divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms (kg). Then, multiply that number by 1.2 grams of protein per kg to determine the minimum amount of protein you need each day [1]. Using a 150-pound person as an example: 150 divided by 2.2 equals 68 kg. Multiplying 68 by 1.2 equals 81 grams of protein. This is the minimum amount of protein to aim for each day—you’ll likely need a higher amount of protein if you’re physically active or in a stressed state (i.e., you’re overworked, ill, or struggling with grief).
  2. Consider tracking your protein intake with an app like Cronometer. Tracking your protein intake for several days will help you get a better idea of how much protein you’re already eating. If you’re meeting your goal, that’s great, and you can continue with what you’re doing. If you’re falling short on protein, then you’ll have a better idea of how much you need to add to your daily intake, either with food or supplements.  
  3. Spread protein intake evenly throughout the day. Rather than trying to eat loads of protein at one meal, it may be best to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to aim for about 30 grams of protein at each meal.
  4. Supplement with whey protein. If you’re struggling to reach your protein goal with food, you may want to add a supplemental whey protein shake that has about 30 grams of protein per serving [1]. While it’s best to eat whole food sources of protein first, a whey protein drink is an excellent way to fill the gaps in your diet, especially if your appetite is poor. If you don’t tolerate whey protein, a plant-based protein powder (like pea, hemp, or soy) is another good option.
  5. Consider adding a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D, in combination with whey protein supplements, may help increase muscle mass, strength, and overall function in elderly folks [3]. Speak with your healthcare provider to personalize how much vitamin D you need.
  6. Practice resistance training. Resistance training combined with a higher protein diet can improve muscle mass and strength for elderly folks [3, 4, 5, 6]. If you’re new to exercising, especially resistance training, you may want to work with a fitness professional who can guide you on safely adding it to your routine. Aim for 2–3 resistance training sessions lasting 20–60 minutes each week [4].

Ok, so now that you have some practical tips for increasing your protein intake and adding resistance training to your routine, let’s get into the protein details you need to know about.

What Is Protein and Why Is It So Important?

There are six nutrients that your body needs to function properly—carbohydrates, fats, proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals. Carbs and fat tend to get most of the attention, but protein deserves equal time in the spotlight. Let me tell you why. 

Protein plays a role in practically all of your body’s chemical reactions, and it also helps to regulate how your genes express themselves and how your immune system works. Protein provides structure to your cells and can also give you energy (calories) when you don’t eat enough fat and carbs [7]. All of these are very important, but one of the most essential functions of protein, building and maintaining muscle mass, may be under-appreciated.

On the podcast, I really liked how Dr. Lyon described muscle as the organ of longevity. It makes a lot of sense when you think about how detrimental sarcopenia is for an older person.

Just by maintaining a healthy amount of muscle in our older years, we can preserve our metabolic health, remain more physically active, and stave off sarcopenia-related concerns—all of which may help us live healthier, longer lives. So, how do you protect the vital organ called muscle? By optimizing dietary protein intake (and practicing resistance training).

Controversy exists around protein, just like it does around fats and carbs. Like many others, you may be confused about which is better—animal protein or plant protein? And if you avoid animal products, you may wonder if you can even get enough protein? So, let me shed some light on these questions to help you decide what’s best for your body. 

Protein 101

I don’t want to get too technical here, but proteins are chains of amino acids. This is why you’ll hear amino acids often referred to as the ‘building blocks’ of proteins [8]. When you eat protein-containing foods (whether animal or plant-based), your body breaks the proteins down into amino acids and then forms those amino acids into new proteins for your body to use as it needs [7]. While there are literally hundreds of amino acids, humans only use 20 of them. Here’s a table describing how they’re classified and the individual amino acids in each class [7, 8]

Amino Acid Class Description Individual Amino Acids
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) Can’t be made by the body, so must be consumed from food
  • HistidineIsoleucine
  • *Leucine
  • *Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • TryptophanValine*

*branched-chain amino acid

Non-Essential Amino Acids Can be made by the body and also consumed in food
  • Alanine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartate
  • Glutamate
  • Serine
Conditionally Essential Amino Acids Can be made by a healthy body under normal circumstances, but during starvation or certain genetic conditions, must be obtained from food
  • Arginine
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamate
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Tyrosine

All of these amino acids, and thus protein, are available in various amounts from both animal sources (like red meat, dairy products, eggs, poultry, and seafood) and plant sources (like legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds) [8]. While I don’t want you to get hung up on learning the names of the amino acids, three of the EAAs—isoleucine, leucine, and valine, also called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) may be pretty important for older people to pay attention to. Like the other amino acids, the BCAAs are used to form proteins, but they may have an especially important role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle mass) and preventing protein breakdown [9]. Prioritizing these in your diet may give your muscles an edge as you get older, but what’s the best way to do that?

Animal and soy-based protein sources provide all nine of the EAAs (including the BCAAs), while most other plants don’t [7]. Does this mean animal and soy proteins are superior? Not at all. It does mean that without animal products and soy, you’ll need to consume a larger variety and amount (which usually also means more calories) of plant-based protein sources to match the protein content of animal and soy-based foods [7].

Let me give you an example by comparing chicken breast to quinoa:

A 3-ounce chicken breast contains about 27 grams of protein and 135 calories, whereas 1 cup of quinoa has about 8 grams of protein and 222 calories. Both chicken breast and quinoa contain all nine EAAs, but if you want to consume the same amount of protein as you’d find in the chicken breast, you’d need almost 3.5 cups of quinoa. That amount of quinoa has around 780 calories, compared to 135 calories found in chicken breast. I’m not firmly planted in any one diet camp, and there’s no right or wrong here. It’s just something to keep in mind when personalizing your meal plan for your health goals.

protein for seniors

Now that you’ve had a primer on protein, let me share what the research says about how much protein you need based on your age and health goals. 

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Outside of the bodybuilding world, protein has seemingly been an afterthought for many years. For decades, healthcare professionals have calculated protein needs based on the standard Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 0.8g–1.0g/kilogram of body weight [8]. As it turns out, this antiquated recommendation was determined using nitrogen balance, a method now questioned by many researchers [10, 11]. The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to protein. The amount of protein we each need varies depending on our age, sex, body weight, lean body mass, activity level, and many other factors.  

Science has taught us that we all probably have higher protein requirements in general. The International Protein Board (IPB), a group of scientists around the globe who work to provide current, science-based information about protein nutrition, has found the RDA insufficient for the general population, and especially older people, to achieve and maintain general health and fitness, healthy weight loss, muscle mass, sports performance, and healthy aging [12].

While we all need to meet our protein needs, optimal protein intake may be especially important for kids [10, 11], active adults [11, 13], women who are pregnant or lactating [11, 14], and adults over the age of 50 [15]. Here’s a helpful IPB resource on protein needs as they relate to different populations and health goals [12]:

As you can see, protein needs for healthy aging may be much higher than previously thought. Now, I want to get into the nitty gritty of why optimizing protein for seniors is so crucial for their quality of life and health outcomes.

Protein for Seniors

We all probably have family members who’ve lost their independence and ability to take care of themselves as they’ve gotten older. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle where the less we do, the less we’re able to do. On top of that, it doesn’t help that we tend to lose our appetites as we age [16]. Less activity combined with inadequate nutrient intake can significantly reduce muscle mass, increasing the likelihood of sarcopenia, undernutrition, and malnutrition in older folks. Roughly 45% of elderly people who live at home and 80–100% of those who live in residential care facilities are undernourished [1]. Is it possible that we could reverse these trends just by prioritizing protein for seniors? Let me share what the research tells us.

Meta-analyses (of observational studies) of older adults have found

  • Eating more protein than the RDA is significantly associated with better physical performance and greater muscle strength [17]
  • Higher daily protein intake may reduce the risk of hip fractures by 11% [18]
  • Combining regular resistance training (2–3 times per week for 20–60 minutes) with a high protein diet (1.2g/kg body weight/day) can modestly reduce fat mass and significantly improve muscle mass, strength, and walking speed in people with sarcopenic obesity (high body fat plus low muscle mass and function) [4]

While these are observational studies, meaning they don’t show us cause and effect, it does seem that higher amounts of protein may be protective as we get older. So, how much protein do seniors need? I’ve created a table comparing the old recommendation to the newer estimate based on current research [11, 15]: 

Age Group / Life StageRDA (g protein per kg body weight per day)Newer estimate (g protein per kg body weight per day)
50 and older [15]0.81–1.5
Women over 65 years [11]0.81.29
Women over 80 years [11]0.81.15

It’s important to remember that even these new guidelines may represent the minimum amount of protein needed. Older folks may need higher amounts of protein based on their activity level, disease status, and body weight. 

Eating more protein definitely seems like a great strategy for combating some of the side effects of aging. However, a high protein diet tends to decrease appetite, and many older people already struggle with poor appetite, so how can we optimize protein intake [16]? Spreading your protein evenly throughout the day may mitigate some of its potential impact on appetite. If you still struggle to eat enough protein, supplemental protein may also help to fill the gaps. 

Protein Supplements for Seniors

It’s one thing to know how much protein you need and quite another to actually eat that amount each day. One challenge with meeting protein goals as we get older is low appetite, and eating more protein tends to reduce appetite. One study on appetite found high protein drinks reduced hunger, especially in elderly people [16]. On the other hand, in one literature review, when the rates of gastric emptying and hunger between older and younger men were compared, the older men’s stomachs emptied protein drinks more slowly, and their appetites weren’t curbed when compared to younger men [19]. This suggests that eating more protein when we’re older may not have the same appetite-suppressing effect as it does when we’re younger [1]. 

If you’ve been focusing on eating more protein but are still falling short of your goal, there’s a lot of high-quality research to support the use of supplemental protein in elderly people. Several 2023 meta-analyses have found protein supplements (either alone or combined with other interventions) to reduce inflammation (a contributor to muscle breakdown) [20] and possibly improve physical function in older people with sarcopenia even without exercise [3, 21]. 

Here’s a table breaking down the results:

Study Protocol Results
The effect of whey and soy protein supplements on inflammation [20
  • Whey and soy protein supplements both have significant anti-inflammatory effects, especially in people with sarcopenia 
Whey protein supplements with and without vitamin D supplements in older adults with sarcopenia [3]
  • >20 grams of whey protein per day plus strength training improved muscle mass and strength to a small extent
  • 15–40 grams of whey protein per day improved physical function, especially walking speed, even without exercise
  • 8.5–40 grams of whey protein plus vitamin D increased muscle mass, strength, and overall function even without regular exercise
Whey protein, leucine (a BCAA), and vitamin D supplements on sarcopenia [5]
  • All three supplements combined increased muscle mass in patients with sarcopenia with or without exercise
  • All three supplements plus exercise improved muscular power and performance
Whey protein supplements on physical function in elderly people with sarcopenia [21]
  • Whey protein alone had no effect on muscle mass, strength, physical performance, weight, or nutritional status
  • When combined with exercise, whey protein might improve muscle mass and lower body function 
Whey protein supplements plus resistance training in older people with sarcopenia [6]
  • Combining whey protein and resistance training improved lean muscle mass and handgrip strength in elderly people with sarcopenia

This research suggests protein supplements alone are an option for possibly improving physical function in older folks with sarcopenia. And when you combine whey protein powder with vitamin D and leucine, even without exercise, older people may be able to increase their muscle mass, strength, and function [3, 5].

Additionally, collagen peptides (protein without the amino acid tryptophan) also appear to benefit older folks with sarcopenia. Elderly men who took 15 grams of collagen peptides each day and exercised had improved joint function and less joint pain, as well as better body composition, strength, and muscle recovery [22].

But dietary protein (whether from food or supplements) is just one part of the equation when we’re talking about preserving precious muscle mass as we age. The second component here is resistance training. Resistance training with or without whey protein supplements can improve muscle mass, strength, and physical function in elderly people with sarcopenia [3, 4, 5, 6]. Increasing your protein intake in combination with resistance training may help optimize your results. 

To sum this up, we’re all probably better off incorporating exercise (especially resistance training) into our daily lives, and eating more protein than the RDA to prevent sarcopenia and frailty when we’re older. And it’s never too late to start—if you’re an older person who hasn’t worked your muscles much or focused on protein to this point, incorporating both now may reduce your levels of inflammation and help you hold on to more muscle mass as you age.  

So research suggests that we need more, not less protein, as we get older, but how much is too much? If you’ve heard that higher protein diets aren’t good for some people, let me share some great news concerning the safety of high protein diets.  

Are High Protein Diets Safe for Seniors?

Some controversy exists around the safety of high-protein diets, mostly related to negative impacts on people with chronic kidney disease [23]. However, for most adults, a solid body of high-quality research shows no evidence that high protein diets (up to 2.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for up to 2 years) harm kidney function [24] or bone health [25]. 

Additionally, a meta-analysis of 9 randomized controlled trials found adults who ate a high protein meal replacement for weight loss had no negative side effects, and eating high protein for up to a year led to more weight loss and fat loss when compared to people who ate low protein (0.8–1.1g protein/kg/day) [26]. A 2016 literature review suggested that consuming 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day long-term is safe for healthy adults [27].

From this data, it appears that eating a higher protein diet is safe for older adults. Furthermore, high protein diets help to reduce the inflammation and negative outcomes of muscle wasting and frailty that plague so many seniors, so it seems like a win-win [3, 20, 21]. With that said, if you have chronic kidney disease, please check with your doctor for guidance on the right amount of protein for you.

Protein and Resistance Training: A Winning Combo for Seniors

We’re all probably hoping to age well, but for most of us, it takes some work. As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass, and that places us at risk for everything from falling and losing our independence to malnutrition and even early death. The great news here is that we don’t have to just accept this as our fate. Simply prioritizing adequate protein intake and creating consistent habits around resistance training can do a lot to prepare our bodies to be more resilient as we get older. If you’re already at an advanced age, eating more protein and practicing resistance training becomes even more important for protecting your muscle mass and strength, lowering your level of inflammation, and improving your ability to move around.  

The amount of protein we all need varies based on many factors, like age, sex, activity level, and disease status. Seniors likely need a minimum of 1.2g/kg of protein per day but probably require even higher amounts. Both animal and plant protein foods can be used to meet protein needs, and protein supplements can be a handy option if you fall short of your protein goal. 

I know it can be tough to wade through the massive amount of nutrition information that’s out there. If you’d like some guidance on your own health journey, contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health for a personalized plan.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References

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