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by Candy Sagon
Updated September 28, 2022
Are you eating enough protein?
A growing number of experts say many older adults may need to get more protein than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) to help preserve muscle mass, bone health and strength as we age.
Some studies also suggest that sufficient protein may help protect mental skills. Insufficient protein can affect factors like poor sleep, insufficient physical activity, stress and anxiety, which can contribute to cognitive decline.
Researchers point out that the original recommendation for protein was based on studies of healthy younger adults, and studies suggest that the current RDA may be insufficient for older people, especially those age 65 and up. Older bodies have a harder time processing and using protein, resulting in a faster loss of muscle mass with age.
The RDA for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. For a 150-pound woman, that translates into about 54 grams of protein; a 180-pound man should be eating 65 grams daily.
To give you an idea of the protein content of common foods, a small portion (3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards) of skinless chicken has about 25 grams of protein; 3 ounces of either salmon or tuna has 22 grams; a 6-ounce carton of Greek yogurt, 18 grams; 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 7 grams; and an egg, 6 grams.
So if a woman has an egg at breakfast, yogurt at lunch, peanut butter for a snack and a 3-ounce portion of chicken breast or salmon at dinner, she’s achieved the current RDA of protein.
But two international groups of physicians and nutrition experts have suggested that the RDA for healthy older adults be increased to 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. That’s 68 to 82 grams for a 150-pound woman and 82 to 98 grams for a 180-pound man.
That would mean our typical woman might need to increase her portion of meat or fish. She could accomplish this by, say, having a large chicken breast or a 6-ounce portion of salmon at dinner and adding an additional source of protein during the day — such as 2 or 3 ounces of cheese, or a container of yogurt for a snack, another egg at breakfast or a cup of lentils or beans at dinner.
“There is mounting evidence that older adults need more dietary protein than their younger counterparts to support good health, promote recovery from illnesses and maintain functionality [the ability to do the activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, cooking, etc …],” wrote researchers Rachel Deer and Elena Volpi, both at the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston, in a May 2015 study of protein intake and muscle function in older adults.
Up to a third of older Americans fail to meet the RDA for protein. And while many adults do eat enough protein, federal data show that 20 to 24 percent of older women and 5 to 12 percent of older men consume less than adequate amounts.
Muscle mass decreases about 3 to 8 percent each decade after age 30, but that decline is even higher after age 60, especially among those who are sedentary, who eat less food due to medical problems or lack of funds, or who have trouble preparing meals for themselves.
Beyond muscle mass, some research has found eating enough protein may also improve thinking ability. A January 2020 study of nearly 2,500 U.S. adults age 60 and older, published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, found a link between eating more protein and higher scores on certain mental-skills tests, particularly if the protein came primarily from meat, eggs and legumes.
Consider these three factors about how the amount of protein you eat plays an important role in your health as you age and why you may need to talk to a health care provider or dietitian about adjusting your daily amount. (Keep in mind that those with kidney disease should not increase their protein intake without consulting their doctor.)
More protein may reduce the risk of bone fracture, lower the rate of complications following surgery and decrease muscle loss. A number of studies find that higher levels of protein consumption — even just 20 percent more a day — provide a range of health benefits for older adults, especially those 65 and older. The “Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study,” which followed 24,000 women ages 65 to 79 over three years, showed that a 20 percent increase in protein was associated with a 12 to 32 percent lower risk of frailty (most often defined as weakness and declining health).
Increased protein helps older people maintain daily activities and avoid disability, because it has been linked to a lower risk of disabling falls and fractures in older adults, as well as helping them sustain the strength and ability to do everyday tasks, according to a September 2018 study that followed nearly 3,000 older adults over 23 years. Even among the oldest participants (age 85 and up), more protein was associated with less disability over five years, a 2018 British study of 722 adults reported. Those with the best results ate 1 gram of protein per kilogram (2.2.pounds) of body weight daily.
Spreading out protein consumption during the day yields better health benefits, since it’s not just the amount you eat but whether you consume it evenly during the day so your body can absorb the protein sources more easily, health experts stress. Studies show that older Americans tend to eat most of their protein at dinner, giving the body more than it can absorb in one sitting. Think of it as trying to pour 20 gallons of gas into a 10-gallon tank. Instead, it’s better to eat a little less protein at dinner and add more of it at breakfast and lunch.
Try these recipes
These high-protein breakfast tacos (which also would be great for lunch) get a triple dose of protein from eggs, cheese and black beans. Or try this popular salmon burger recipe with green goddess sauce that’s packed with 23 grams of protein.
For a meat-free dish that’s still high in protein, opt for this quick and healthy bean and barley soup with 13 grams of protein.
• "Protein Intake and Muscle Function in Older Adults," Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, May 2015. In this review, researchers note the incidence of sarcopenia, the loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength and function and how it contributes to frailty, disability and mortality in adults 65 and older. Researchers conclude that eating more protein daily — higher amounts than are currently recommended — could help counteract sarcopenia and help older adults remain stronger. Read a summary of the review. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Association Between Dietary Protein Intake and Cognitive Function in Adults Aged 60 Years and Older,” The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, January 2020. Nearly 2,500 adults took cognitive tests and were asked to recall what they had eaten over two 24-hour periods. Researchers found that total protein intake from several food categories — total animal foods, meat, eggs and legumes — was linked to better performance on certain cognitive tests. However, there was an adverse association between high protein intake from milk and milk products and cognitive function. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Protein Intake and Incident Frailty in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study," Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, June 2010. Researchers surveyed 24,417 women ages 65-79 who did not report any signs of frailty at the beginning of the study. Frailty is described as low physical function, exhaustion, low physical activity and unintended weight loss. After three years, about 13.5 percent of participants reported signs of frailty. Those who reported eating more protein were less likely to experience frailty symptoms. As a population study, this research does not prove cause and effect. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Protein Intake and Functional Integrity in Aging: The Framingham Heart Study Offspring," The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, January 2020. In a two-decade study of 2,917 people (average age 54), those who reported eating the highest amounts of protein were the least likely to report a loss of physical function (as measured by gait speed, grip strength, falls, fractures and frailty). This was especially true in women. As a population study, this research does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Protein Intake and Disability Trajectories in Very Old Adults: The Newcastle 85+ Study," The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, November 2018. This study looked at people age 85 and followed them to age 90. Those who ate the most protein regularly were the least likely to show problems in 17 activities of daily living, including getting in and out of a chair, shopping for groceries and walking at least 400 yards. As a population study, this research does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.