Here’s Why Protein Requirements Change As You Age

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There’s no denying it: protein is massively important for your health. Whether you're a vegan or an omnivore, the protein you eat helps build muscles, make enzymes and hormones to keep your body's systems functioning properly, sustains healthy energy levels, and offers countless other benefits.

“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.


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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

According to a 2016 study, there's evidence that older adults aren't as responsive to protein as they age1, meaning they need more of it to function optimally compared to younger adults. The research shows that "a loss or reduction in skeletal muscle function often leads to increased morbidity and mortality either directly, or indirectly, via the development of secondary diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity." In turn, increased protein intake in older populations can potentially promote overall well-being.

What's more, the need for adequate protein consumption is especially important among women as they reach menopause. In fact, studies show that adequate protein intake is associated with better physical performance among post-menopausal women2 ages 60 to 90 years old. Out of the 387 female participants in the study, those that consumed less protein demonstrated impaired lower and upper extremity function, as compared to the women that consumed more protein.

Another related study suggests that a high protein intake through middle and later life, especially for older women, may also be particularly impactful in helping with the maintenance of physical function3. “In this study, people consuming the highest tier of protein—92 grams per day—had a 30 percent lower risk of loss of functioning,” Dewsnap says. “[However], 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," she says.

But adequate protein intake isn't just important once you reach an older age. Rather, it's important in every stage in life. “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 decreased lean muscle mass, 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.

Staying on top of protein intake is also important in maintaining muscle mass, especially for women. “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 (the time before menopause when ovarian function starts to decline) and menopause itself, declining fertility causes estrogen levels to 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.

It's also worth noting that men can also experience sarcopenia. According to Harvard Health Publishing, after the age of 30, adults begin to lose as much as three to five percent of muscle mass per decade. Meanwhile, most men will lose about 30 percent of muscle mass, as a result of sarcopenia, during their lifetimes. Thus, getting enough protein—which can help stave off the loss of lean muscle—is as crucial for older women as it is for older men.

So, how do I calculate how much protein I need?

How much protein you need can vary from person to person, but there are a few general guidelines to follow that can be helpful when calculating how much of the nutrient you may need. (Or, you can always try this protein intake calculator for easy and convenient guidance.) Generally, the protein recommendation for adults is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. That said, more active women should be getting 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram. For context, that translates into 54 to 68 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound woman.

But before you start adding boatloads of protein to your daily routine, you may want to ramp intake up slowly. Research also suggests that eating as much as 0.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight at intervals spread out by a few hours throughout the day 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,” Jones says.

Again, though, folks who are older likely need a bit more than that to help maintain their muscle mass. On that note, evidence shows that an optimal range of protein intake for elderly adults is between 1.2 and 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day1. Either way, that's...a lot of protein. So, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor or registered dietitian before upping protein intake at once.

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 the amount of protein per each meal 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.)

One of your best options for protein-rich foods 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. Meanwhile, lean meats like chicken, turkey, and fish are also 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 to make a tasty protein shake for breakfast 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. In fact, amping up protein intake as you age is 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.

Speaking of protein, these are the best vegetarian and vegan sources of protein that an RD loves: 


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Baum, Jamie I et al. “Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?.” Nutrients vol. 8,6 359. 8 Jun. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8060359
  2. Karvonen-Gutierrez, Carrie, and Catherine Kim. “Association of Mid-Life Changes in Body Size, Body Composition and Obesity Status with the Menopausal Transition.” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 4,3 42. 13 Jul. 2016, doi:10.3390/healthcare4030042
  3. Hruby, Adela et al. “Protein Intake and Functional Integrity in Aging: The Framingham Heart Study Offspring.” The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences vol. 75,1 (2020): 123-130. doi:10.1093/gerona/gly201
  4. Karvonen-Gutierrez, Carrie, and Catherine Kim. “Association of Mid-Life Changes in Body Size, Body Composition and Obesity Status with the Menopausal Transition.” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 4,3 42. 13 Jul. 2016, doi:10.3390/healthcare4030042
  5. Srikanthan, Preethi, and Arun S Karlamangla. “Muscle mass index as a predictor of longevity in older adults.” The American journal of medicine vol. 127,6 (2014): 547-53. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.02.007
  6. Walston, Jeremy D. “Sarcopenia in older adults.” Current opinion in rheumatology vol. 24,6 (2012): 623-7. doi:10.1097/BOR.0b013e328358d59b
  7. Srikanthan, Preethi, and Arun S Karlamangla. “Muscle mass index as a predictor of longevity in older adults.” The American journal of medicine vol. 127,6 (2014): 547-53. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.02.007
  8. Lancha, Antonio Herbert Jr et al. “Dietary protein supplementation in the elderly for limiting muscle mass loss.” Amino acids vol. 49,1 (2017): 33-47. doi:10.1007/s00726-016-2355-4
  9. Deer, Rachel R, and Elena Volpi. “Protein intake and muscle function in older adults.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care vol. 18,3 (2015): 248-53. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000162
  10. Baum, Jamie I et al. “Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?.” Nutrients vol. 8,6 359. 8 Jun. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8060359
  11. Soleymani, Mahshid et al. “Dietary patterns and their association with menopausal symptoms: a cross-sectional study.” Menopause (New York, N.Y.) vol. 26,4 (2019): 365-372. doi:10.1097/GME.0000000000001245

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