Over 50? Eat More Protein, Improve Your Health
🕑 5 min read | Sam Kavarsky
Having coached and trained both high-level athletes as well as the general population for the past 12 years, one thing has become increasingly evident: there are many misconceptions with respect to improving the way we look, feel, and move as we age.
One of these misconceptions centers around protein consumption.
Unfortunately, some of the literature regarding protein, can be quite confusing and a quick google search will absolutely make your head spin.
You won’t have to spend much time scrolling on social media either before you come across a protein-related topic debating quantity, quality, timing, or type.
Recently, the popularity of the protein debate has increased due to its association with skeletal muscle mass.
For adults entering their fifth decade, there has never been a more important time to examine this topic; the association between protein and skeletal muscle mass has been shown to have a profound impact, not only on long-term quality of life, but also on the body’s ability to potentially combat the COVID-19 virus.
Why do we need more protein as we age?
As we age, our body requires more protein than when we are younger. During the aging process, there is evidence to suggest that most older adults simply do not consume enough total calories and the calories that are consumed lack adequate quantities of protein.
However, even if protein consumption is ideal, the body’s ability to absorb and digest food is going to be greatly limited due to factors including decreased stomach acid, increased oxidative modifications of proteins, and inflammatory disease.
This makes it much more challenging for the body to become sensitive to anabolic signaling and as a result, muscle protein synthesis is limited (Kim et al., 2018).
Decline in Muscle Mass
Prior to the age of 50, a decrease in muscle mass has been shown to be the result of a decrease in muscle fiber size. This is associated with a sedentary lifestyle and it is something that can be modified with exercise and fueling (Faulkner, Larkin, Claflin, & Brooks, 2007).
Unfortunately, after the age of 50, the body will no longer be afforded a buffer when it comes to muscle fiber quantity. Between the ages of 50 and 80, a 50% decline in muscle fiber quantity will occur (Lonnie et al., 2018).
Muscle plays a central role in the optimal function of every system in the body, impacting all of the following:
1Body composition and body fat
2Insulin health and metabolic function
3Bone strength and regeneration
4Cognition and mental health
Eating high quality protein is crucial for increasing and maintaining skeletal muscle mass.
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Respiratory Function + COVID-19 Complications
Most recently, COVID-19 has forced us to examine research focusing on the influence of muscle mass on respiratory function as well as survivability in the event an individual is hospitalized.
A study performed in 2018 found positive correlations between skeletal muscle index, respiratory function, and respiratory muscle strength. In males, skeletal muscle index was correlated with respiratory muscle strength and in females, skeletal muscle index was correlated with total lung capacity (Sawaya et al., 2018).
Another study in the Journal of Respiratory Medicine found that fat-free mass was correlated with forced vital capacity (the amount of total air exhaled), inspiratory pressure (pressure applied to the lungs during inhalation), and exercise tolerance (Papalexopoulou et al., 2018).
Both of these studies provide strong indications that those with low levels of skeletal muscle mass are putting themselves in a disadvantageous position before any exposure to COVID-19 even takes place.
What are the healthiest protein sources for older adults?
When muscle protein synthesis is limited, the body will have a very challenging time increasing skeletal muscle mass. Therefore, there are three factors that need to be considered when choosing a protein source: protein quality, variety, and quantity.
To assess protein quality, the amino acid profile of the protein must be considered. Within each amino acid profile is a single amino acid called leucine. Leucine content is extremely important as it is the key driver behind muscle protein synthesis. Leucine content is also one of the main reasons that proteins are not all created equal (Volpi, 2018).
For example, the amount of leucine found in a steak is much greater than what you would find in quinoa. With leucine content taken into consideration, opting for animal-based sources of protein would be most advantageous to reap the benefits of skeletal muscle mass growth and maintenance.
However, we still must also consume protein that comes from a quality source. I believe Paul Chek said it best in his book How to Eat, Move, and Be Healthy:
“Compare the effort it takes to break the thigh on a typical commercially raised chicken versus a free-range chicken, or even better an organic free-range chicken. You’ll probably be amazed to find that it is 3-4x harder to break the ligaments of the free-range bird’s knee joint. I’ve seen the exact same problem with many athletes on garbage food diets that get muscle, ligament, or connective tissue injuries and can’t heal, sometimes after years of therapy.”
This does not only apply to athletes, but any human looking to achieve health through increased levels of skeletal muscle mass.
The quality of the animal-based protein source matters. For example, when comparing grass-fed beef to grain-fed beef, research has shown that there are greater levels of conjugated linoleic acid (a naturally occurring fatty acid found in meat and dairy products), omega 3-s, and increased level of precursors for vitamins A, E, and glutathione in the grass-fed beef (Daley, Abbott, Doyle, Nader, & Larson, 2010).
In addition, emerging research has also shown that diet can not only influence the composition of our intestinal microbiota, but also our respiratory microbiota. This phenomenon has been labeled the gut-lung axis and there is evidence of crosstalk between these two areas (Marsland, Trompette, & Gollwitzer, 2015). As a result, emphasizing the quality of the foods we are consuming, particularly protein, could potentially be more important than ever.
Variety of protein source is another factor. This consideration is important because more than 20% of the population in industrialized countries suffer from food intolerances or food allergies (Zopf, Baenkler, Silbermann, Hahn, & Raithel, 2009).
To proactively combat this, I have found consuming a wide variety of high-quality animal-based protein will yield greater increases in skeletal muscle mass.
I have heard of many people trying to improve body composition by consuming chicken breasts on a daily basis. Doing this would be analogous to programming bench press during every single upper body session over the course of the entire year. There would quickly be a level of diminishing returns as the body needs exposure to slight variety (incline bench press, overhead press, flat dumbbell bench press).
I believe that a rotation of amino acid profiles over the course of an extended period will result in the greatest health and performance benefits.
While these profiles can and should be rotated, leucine content must still be accounted for to ensure the best possible outcome.
How much protein should someone over 50 be eating?
Once quality and variety are accomplished, the third consideration must be quantity. The specific quantity of protein needed on a daily and per meal basis will always come into question.
Protein Consumption Per Day
Let’s remember that an increased level of protein consumption during the aging process is a means to an end. With this in mind, research has made it clear that in order to gain skeletal muscle mass as an older adult, exceeding the recommended daily allowance is preferred (Lonnie et al., 2018).
One reason for this is that consumption of .8g grams per kilogram of bodyweight is simply too low, especially for those who stay physically active. This number also does not take age into account.
New research, as well as recommendations from the PROT-AGE study group, indicates that an average daily intake of 1.0 to 1.2g per kilogram of bodyweight daily is most effective for adults over the age of 65.
However, waiting until 65 years of age to make this change would be short-sighted. In addition to that, these recommendations also take into consideration leucine content. The PROT-AGE group suggests this to be 2.5-2.8 grams (Bauer et al., 2013).
Protein Consumption Per Meal
When it comes to protein consumption per meal, a 2015 study concluded that older men require a greater relative protein intake during a single meal than their younger counter parts.
One reason why this study was particularly interesting is because it accounted for and compared protein intake relative to bodyweight. Recommendations from the authors suggest that consuming .40 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight will allow for a positive net protein balance and be very helpful from a skeletal muscle mass perspective (Moore et al., 2015).
Another study in the Journal of Gerontology found that, over a 14-week period, the consumption of protein at a quantity based on the recommended dietary allowance was inadequate. As proof, this study actually showed a decrease in the size of the mid-thigh muscle area (Campbell, Trappe, Wolfe, & Evans, 2001).
The previously mentioned research providing evidence for the consumption of .4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a very helpful baseline. General recommendations of 20-30 grams of protein per meal for someone weighing 200 lbs. would be drastically different in comparison to someone weighing 130 lbs.
There are several apps that will help when it comes to identifying more specific micronutrient ratios within our food selections to make sure the right choice is being made. However, in many instances, weighing food as it relates to grams and amino acid profile is not always practical.
I have found that using a hand measuring method can also be very effective. When it comes to protein, a general recommendation would be to break servings up into palm-lengths. Using the hand measuring method is both effective and convenient as it allows us to always have a measurement tool available (our hands), and it also accounts for the relative size of the person.
Using either one of these methods, a food scale or the hand method, provides a way to quantify the amount of protein being consumed.
Body Composition Analysis
For the best results, the quantity of protein being consumed should always be measured along with skeletal muscle mass through a body composition analysis.
This can provide a very strong indication as to whether protein consumption needs to be re-evaluated as a potential limiting factor to skeletal muscle maintenance or growth. Now clearly, there are many other variables that may come into play, but if the reason we are consuming more protein is to maintain or increase skeletal muscle mass, then it would be worthwhile to keep this as the main focus.
Does activity level change protein requirements?
Keep in mind that the grams of protein listed above may need to be modified based depending on physical activity. Increases may be necessary based on intensity of exercise, frequency, training duration, and training age.
Additionally, it is also necessary to keep in mind that exercise-based resistance training can increase protein synthesis for up to 24 hours after a session is completed. During this period, greater protein consumption is certainly warranted.
Does meal timing matter?
Additionally, there is some evidence indicating that a greater per meal protein consumption could be more beneficial in an older population than in a younger population.
A study performed in 1999 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that pulse-feedings of protein resulted in a greater positive nitrogen balance as well as greater increases in fat-free mass when compared to spread-feedings (Arnal et al., 1999).
From a practical application standpoint, it would seem that if one large protein feeding were to take place, breakfast would be an ideal time for this to occur as breakfast is usually consumed directly after the body is in a catabolic state.
How does this change in your 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s…?
As adults age into their 60’s, 70s, 80’s, and 90’s, the need for continued physical activity and, more specifically, resistance training, becomes even more critical.
Protein consumption at higher quantities should be dependent on trends in measured skeletal muscle mass. Being able to evaluate skeletal muscle mass through the aging process will be most helpful if we are able to look back and review individualized trends.
This information can be very helpful in determining successful progress or maintenance into later years in life. I personally believe that it would be in the best interest of every adult to begin measuring body composition as early as 25 years old.
When it comes to optimizing body composition and longevity, protein consumption is one part of a very big puzzle. We should keep this in mind, as this alone, will not be enough to actualize the long-term results we are looking for. Sleep, hydration, mindset, stress levels, and digestion are just a few other factors that can make up other pieces to the puzzle.
Very few people have it all together, but when it comes to understanding the necessity of an integrative journey, protein consumption is a great place to start.
Sam Kavarsky is the founder of Science Over Tradition, a community which helps members reach their potential through the integration of cutting-edge training, nutrition, and recovery protocols. He holds a master’s degree from Springfield College in Exercise Science with a concentration in Strength & Conditioning and is also a certified Precision Nutrition Level 2 coach. Currently, Sam is a student at the University of Bridgeport where he is pursuing a Doctorate in Chiropractic and a second Masters’ degree in human nutrition.
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