Protein plays an essential role in helping maintain muscle mass. In addition to its metabolism-boosting effect, lean muscle also enables us to get around and perform daily activities easily. As we age, however, we naturally lose muscle.
“Lean muscle mass decreases 2 to 3 percent each decade,” says Amy Goodson, the Dallas Cowboys sports dietitian. “Eating adequate protein and exercising regularly helps slow this process.” But requirements change slightly based on age.
If you are younger than 65, a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet is linked to longevity, according to two new studies in the journal Cell Metabolism.
(MORE: 6 Foods That are Surprisingly Bad for You)
If you are older than 65, the opposite is true: A higher protein intake appears to promote a longer life. This is possibly due to the decreasing ability of the body to process protein as we age, so we require more of it.
So how much protein do we need at what age, and what’s the best source?
Calculate Your Protein Needs
If you are younger than 65, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) — formerly the American Dietetic Association — recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for healthy adults.
For those over 65, AND bumps up this recommendation to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight.
This increase amounts to an additional ounce of a protein food, such as chicken, from 3 ounces to a 4-ounce serving, for example. A 3-ounce serving is about the size of half a small chicken breast.
“It’s easiest to think in percentages,” says Sarah Gagliardi, dietitian at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif. “Strive for a protein intake of 20 to 30 percent of your total caloric intake (this pertains to all adults).”
An easy way to follow this guideline is to dedicate 1/4 of your plate to a lean protein (chicken, fish or meat — meat should be between 4 to 7 percent fat), another 1/4 to complex carbohydrate (brown rice, sweet potato) and the remaining half to non-starchy vegetables (green beans, spinach, etc. — not corn or potatoes).
“If you’re eating more protein, you may want to cut back a bit on the complex carbs,” to keep your overall calorie count in check, suggests Gagliardi.
Although higher protein may be beneficial as we age, take care to not go too overboard, as kidney function sometimes decreases as we get older, says Gagliardi.
“This could be an issue since the kidneys are responsible for getting rid of protein the body doesn’t use,” Gagliardi says.
Getting and Absorbing Protein
As we age, we produce fewer enzymes and less stomach acid to break down protein, says JJ Virgin, author of The Virgin Diet. You shouldn’t load up on more protein-rich foods to solve this issue, Virgin says.
“Excess protein (like any food) will get stored as fat. Instead, I recommend a digestive enzyme supplement before meals. Also limit liquid intake during meals, since too much can dilute stomach enzymes that break down protein,” says Virgin.
Virgin also recommends starting your day with a protein shake. “Liquid protein requires less breakdown than solid protein. I recommend a non-soy plant-based protein powder blended with kale or other leafy greens, frozen raspberries, freshly ground flax seed and unsweetened coconut or almond milk.”
Goodson recommends eating five to six small meals and snacks a day, each with a whole-grain carbohydrate or fruit and a lean protein. “This helps maintain blood sugar levels, energy levels and helps people of any age feel better over the course of the day,” she notes.
Remember: Go Lean
It’s also important to consider the type of fat in your protein sources, says Goodson. “A diet with large amounts of high fat protein, such as chicken with skin, marbled red meat (like rib-eye) and full-fat dairy may link to disease, as they are high in saturated fat and thus calories,” she adds.
Goodson suggests eating leaner proteins, such as white meat chicken, lean red meat (like sirloin and filets) and low-fat dairy instead. Vegans and vegetarians can meet their protein needs through legumes, nuts and seeds, quinoa and other plant-based protein foods at every meal.
(MORE: Is Red Meat Killing You?)
“Plant-based diets are usually linked to longevity as they are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help the body fight off disease,” says Goodson. “Plant protein is not as well absorbed in the body as animal protein so it’s considered a lower quality source. But it does provide the body with fiber and nutrients, which makes this a Catch-22.”
The way you cook plant proteins also must be considered, since using butter, sauces and excess oils negates the potential benefits of them, says Goodson.
Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.
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