“Protein is one of the three macronutrients—along with carbohydrates and fats—and therefore is required in high amounts by the body, as it plays an important role in cellular growth, development, and repair, immunity, cell signaling, and hormonal health to name a few,” says Juliana Dewsnap, RD, a dietitian for Baze.
However, there's another surprising protein benefit: it can help with healthy aging. In fact, the body actually requires more protein as you get older. Why, you ask? Here's what you should know.
Why protein requirements change as you age
There’s some evidence that older adults are not as responsive to protein as they age, meaning they need more of it to function optimally compared to younger adults. And the need increases further if you are a woman thanks to menopause.
“While technically increased recommendations by protein researchers consider those age 65 and older, menopause is a key time in a women's life where due to hormonal shifts, body composition can change drastically in a short period of time,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. These changes include increased body fat and decreased lean muscle mass, the latter of which can impact longevity. Considering that the average age of menopause is 51, women might want to start upping their protein intake sooner than 65.
“The decline in muscle mass and function, known as sarcopenia, is due to a variety of factors,” says Jones, including decreased activity levels, poor nutrition, chronic disease, and neurological decline. For older women, though, one of the biggest drivers is menopause-related hormonal changes. During perimenopause and menopause itself, declining fertility causes estrogen levels start to plummet, which has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the body. Research shows that the loss in estrogen, which is important in maintaining muscle and bone mass, can contribute to sarcopenia.
Thus, getting enough protein—which can help stave off the loss of lean muscle—is crucial for older women. A recent study suggests that a high protein intake through middle and later life, especially for older women, may be particularly impactful in helping with the maintenance of physical function. “In this study, people consuming the highest tier of protein—92 grams per day—had a 30 percent lower risk of loss of functioning,” says Dewsnap. “This does not mean you have to consume this much protein, but shows there is likely an association with a higher protein diet and maintaining function as someone gets older."
Speaking of protein, these are the best vegetarian and vegan sources of protein that an RD loves:
So, how much protein should older adults get?
Generally, the protein recommendation for adults is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight; more active women should be getting 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram. That translates into 54 to 68 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound woman.
Again though, people who are older likely need a bit more than that to help maintain their muscle mass. There aren't specific dietary requirements yet, but research suggests that eating as much as 0.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight at intervals spread out by a few hours may enhance the body's appropriate use of protein to maintain skeletal muscle mass as best as possible. “This would be just over 25 grams of protein per meal—and at one snack—for a 150-pound women,” says Jones.
That's...a lot of protein. It's also a big change from the above-mentioned existing recommendations, so it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian before trying it yourself.
If you get the all-clear, Dewsnap recommends breaking down the increase to make it feel more digestible. “It can be helpful to think of this as a per meal protein recommendation so it’s not overwhelming and to ensure you get enough in over the course of the day,” she says. Spreading protein throughout the day may also help the body digest and utilize it better, as opposed to all at once or in very large doses.
For instance, breakfast could be a three-egg vegetable omelet with a slice of higher-protein whole grain bread. For lunch, you might have a salad with three ounces of chicken or four ounces of tofu, along with some farro and chopped pistachios for fiber and good fats. For dinner, you could pair four ounces of salmon with your favorite stir-fry ingredients, like broccoli, bok choy, and carrots, suggests Jones.
What are the best sources of protein for these unique needs?
Animal-based protein sources tend to be more easily utilized by the body compared to plant-based protein sources, but that absolutely does not mean to count out plant-based protein, says Dewsnap. (In fact, research shows that women who eat more plants and less animal protein and fat have fewer menopause-related symptoms like hot flashes.)
Some of your best healthy protein options include eggs, which are one of the most bioavailable sources of protein and can be utilized in a variety of ways. One large, whole egg contains around six grams of protein. Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish are great healthy protein sources, as are protein-rich whole grains like quinoa and farro, soy and tofu, tempeh, lentils, and other minimally-processed plant proteins.
Protein powder mixed with high-protein milk like dairy or soy milk can also help older women get the most bang for their buck if their appetites are low, Dewsnap adds. “Nuts and seeds contain protein in smaller amounts and are higher in fat and calories but carry a plethora of nutrients, which help to make them a great snack option or crunchy topping,” she says.
TL;DR: "Bulking up" on protein isn't just for the gym. It's something that can help you live a longer, healthier life. Just talk with your doctor about the specific amounts you should aim for to ensure you're doing it healthily.
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