Rethinking Protein Needs for Older Adults
Evidence suggests older adults need more protein throughout the day.
Most of the soaring popularity of protein in US supermarkets can be dismissed as marketing hype. Although a new report from Packaged Facts says “protein is currently the hottest functional food ingredient trend in the US,” the truth is that most Americans get plenty of protein without any special dietary boosts.
But an emerging scientific consensus suggests one group of Americans may actually need more protein: older adults at risk of the gradual loss of muscle mass and function that Tufts experts have labeled sarcopenia. Evidence also is mounting that the timing of older adults’ protein consumption may be important; the traditional protein-heavy dinner might need to give way to a more even intake throughout the day, starting at breakfast.
“Although the RDA for protein is substantively the same for all adults, older adults tend to consume less protein than younger adults, primarily due to reduced energy needs,” according to Paul F. Jacques, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Nutritional Epidemiology Program. “Approximately one-third of adults over 50 years of age fail to meet the RDA for protein, and an estimated 10% of older women fail to meet even the lower Estimated Average Requirement for protein.”
The RDA for protein is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men, while the Daily Value percentage used on nutrition labels is based on 50 grams. But experts say those general numbers should be adjusted for body weight: Sedentary adults should aim for 0.36 grams of protein per pound, so an individual weighing 150 pounds would need about 54 grams of daily protein. Endurance runners and strength training athletes need slightly more protein in their diets.
In a report on “Protein and Healthy Aging” published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, however, Jacques and colleagues noted that aging adults might need more than the current RDA for protein. Multiple experts have argued that older adults actually should aim for 0.45 grams to 0.68 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a 150-pound person, that translates to 67.5 to 102 grams of protein daily—substantially more than the 50-gram DV used in the Nutrition Facts panel.
What would that much extra protein look like? To get an additional 35 grams of protein per day, for example, you’d need to eat about four ounces of chicken breast (171 calories), more than four ounces of lean beef (257 calories), or more than a cup and a half of soybeans (406 calories). For a sedentary adult to add that much protein without gaining weight from the accompanying calories could be a challenge. Even if you’re only aiming to meet or modestly exceed the RDA, you’ll need to be smart about substituting high-protein, lower-calorie foods for less-healthy choices in your diet.
TIMING IS KEY: But Jacques and colleagues suggest that when you eat your daily protein may be as important as how much you consume: “Meeting a protein threshold of approximately 25 to 30 grams per meal represents a promising yet relatively unexplored dietary strategy to help maintain muscle mass and function in older adults.” In one recent seven-day trial, they note, muscle protein synthesis was 25% higher when the same quantity of protein was evenly distributed across breakfast, lunch and dinner, compared with the typical pattern that skews toward a protein-heavy dinner.
Breakfast, Jacques adds, may provide the greatest opportunity to more evenly distribute the day’s protein. A typical bowl of cereal and glass of OJ might add up to only about 10 grams of protein, even if all the milk in the bowl is consumed. Adding six ounces of Greek yogurt (17 grams of protein) would put the morning’s protein intake into the optimal range.
Smart snacking can also add protein at times other than dinner. One study found that older adults who snack consume about 6 grams more protein daily than their nonsnacking peers. That’s no excuse to gobble potato chips, however, which have only 1.8 grams of protein per ounce. An ounce of unsalted mixed nuts—about a handful—is a better snacking choice at 4.4 grams of protein. Or a stick of string cheese has 5-8 grams of protein.