Do Older Adults Eat Enough Protein?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Older Adults and Protein

The Impact Of Inadequate Protein Intake On Healthy Aging

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do older adults eat enough protein?

older adults signMost Americans lose lean muscle mass as they age, a physiological process called sarcopenia. There are three factors that influence the rate at which we lose muscle mass as we age:

  • Our physiology changes. Our bodies break down our protein stores more rapidly and we have a harder time utilizing the protein in our diet to replenish those protein stores.
  • We become less active. In some cases this reflects physical disabilities, but all too often it is because we are not giving weight-bearing exercises the proper priority in our busy lives.
  • Our diets become inadequate. The major driver of this phenomenon is loss of appetite which results in decreased caloric intake. However, physical disability, isolation, and insufficient income also contribute.

Sarcopenia in turn results in:

  • Loss of muscle strength. Even the simple act of picking up a grandchild or a bag of groceries can become problematic.
  • Increased risk of falls and fractures.
  • Lower quality of life.

Obviously, sarcopenia is a major health issue for those of us in our golden years. If you are younger, it is a concern for your parents or grandparents. Sarcopenia is a health issue that affects everyone.

But what can be done to prevent sarcopenia? We can’t change our physiology, but we can change our activity level and our diet. Weight-bearing exercise tugs on our muscle fibers. That stimulates those fibers to incorporate protein into new muscle cells. It is no wonder that weight-bearing exercise is recommended for preventing sarcopenia.

What about diet? Are older adults getting enough protein in their diet? The conventional wisdom is that protein intake is not a problem. We’ve been told that Americans get enough protein in our diet. In fact, we’ve been told that most of us get more protein than we need.

Is that true for older Americans? In fact, very few studies have specifically looked at protein intake in older Americans. This study (JL Krok-Schoen et al, The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 23: 338-347, 2019 ) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

older adults eat enough protein studyThis study used data on 11,680 Americans who participated in NHANES surveys between 2005 and 2014. (NHANES or National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys is a program run by the CDC that is designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children living in the United States).

Participants in the study were grouped into three groups: 51-60 years (4,016 participants), 61-70 years (3,854 participants), and 71 years and older (3,810 participants).

Protein intake and diet quality were based on the average of two 24-hour dietary recall interviews. Trained dietary interviewers collected detailed information on all foods and beverages consumed during the past 24 hours.

Participants also filled out a questionnaire designed to assess health outcomes that might be affected by loss of muscle mass.

Note: The NHANES database is used for many studies on the association between diet and health outcomes. However, it is important to remember that a 24-hour diet recall is a single snapshot in time. This is a weakness of this and all similar studies. For example, in this study a participant’s average protein intake may be more or may be less than the amount reflected in the 24-hour diet recall.

 

Are Older Adults Eat Enough Protein?

older adults eat enough protein puzzleTo determine whether American older adults eat enough protein in their diet, the investigators compared protein intake in each age group with the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) for protein of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound). This is the standard set by the Food & Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences for all adults over the age of 19.

The results were:

  • Up to 46% of older adults were not getting the recommended 0.8 g/kg/day of protein. When broken down by age groups, the percentages were:
    • 38% of the 51-60 age group.
    • 42% of the 61-70 age group.
    • 46% of those over 70.
  • Women were more likely to be consuming inadequate protein than men.
  • Blacks were more likely to be consuming inadequate protein than other demographic groups.

When the investigators looked at the correlation between diet quality and protein intake, those consuming inadequate protein:

  • Had significantly lower calorie intake.
  • Skipped meals more frequently.
  • Had lower HEI (Healthy Eating Index) scores. Specifically:
  • They scored low on intake of greens, beans, dairy, total protein foods, seafood protein foods, and plant protein foods.
  • They scored high on intake of refined grains and added sugars.
  • Had inadequate intakes of fiber, zinc, selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D.

 

The Impact Of Inadequate Protein Intake On Healthy Aging

crying iconWhen the investigators compared older adults with inadequate protein intake to adults in the same age groups with adequate protein intake, those with inadequate protein intake:

  • Had a higher prevalence of physical, mental, and social limitations.
  • Were more likely to be limited when stooping, crouching, or kneeling, standing or sitting for long periods, walking up 10 steps, preparing meals, and walking for a quarter mile.
  • They had trouble lifting more than 10 or 15 pounds.

Limitations on everyday activities like these have a significant impact on the quality of life experienced by these individuals.

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

  • older adults eat enough protein questionIf you are over 50 or have a family member over 50, this study should serve as a wake-up call. You or your loved ones may not be getting enough protein.

In the words of the authors: “A considerable portion of older adults (31%-50%) did not meet their protein recommendation (0.8 g/kg/d)…This contradicts the common perception that Americans are usually meeting or exceeding the 0.8 g/kg/d protein recommendation.”

  • The situation may be even worse than this study indicates. This study used the DRI standard for adequate protein intake of 0.8 g/kg/d. Many recent studies suggest that significantly higher protein intakes (1-1.2 g/kg/d) are needed for older adults to prevent loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia). If so, the likelihood that you or your loved ones are not getting enough protein is even higher.

In the words of the authors: “There is a general consensus recommending dietary protein intakes of 1-1.2 g/kg/d…for older adults…If over one third of older adults are not meeting the recommendation of 0.8 g/kg/d, these data suggest that far fewer older adults would be meeting the proposed higher levels (1-1.2 g/kg/d) needed to meet the demands to promote healthy aging.”

  • supplement shakeThe consequences of inadequate protein intake in the older adults may have a significant effect on their quality of life.

In the words of the authors: “This analysis found a positive association between achieving the recommended protein intake and self-reported physical functioning. The functional limitations associated with not meeting the protein requirement were all related to activities of daily living…”

  • Because of decreased appetite in many older adults, it is difficult to meet protein intakes of 1-1.2 g/kg/d with food alone. Protein supplementation can play a valuable role.

In the words of the authors: “When food alone is insufficient to meet a patient’s needs, oral nutritional supplementation may provide a means to meet protein intake recommendations.

“To some extent, sarcopenia can be managed with protein supplementation, considering all the factors that are working to reduce food intake in aging.” [The authors used the phrase “To some extent” because weight-bearing exercise is also required to manage sarcopenia].

  • While this study focused on protein intake, weight-bearing exercise is also essential to prevent sarcopenia. Exercise and adequate protein intake work together to build and maintain lean muscle mass.
  • Finally, we should not ignore the fact that those adults who were not getting enough protein were also getting insufficient levels of many micronutrients that affect the aging process. A good diet and supplementation are also important for healthy aging.

Specifically, the authors noted:

  • “Dietary fiber is associated with many benefits, especially in reducing the risk of heart disease.”
  • “Vitamin D inadequacy is associated with reduced mobility and an increase in risk for falls and fracture.”
  • “Zinc deficiencies…may cause dysfunctions in immunity and reduced healing time.”

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study analyzed protein intake in older American adults. The conclusions of the study were:

  • If you are over 50 or have a family member over 50, this study should serve as a wake-up call. You or your loved ones may not be getting enough protein.
  • The situation may be even worse than this study indicates. This study used the DRI standard for adequate protein intake of 0.8 g/kg/d. Many recent studies suggest that significantly higher protein intakes are needed for older adults to prevent loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia). If so, the likelihood that you or your loved ones are not getting enough protein is even higher.
  • The consequences of inadequate protein intake in the older adults may have a significant effect on their quality of life.
  • Because of decreased appetite in many older adults, it is difficult to meet protein intakes of 1-1.2 g/kg/d with food alone. Protein supplementation can play a valuable role.
  • While this study focused on protein intake, weight-bearing exercise is also essential to prevent sarcopenia. Exercise and adequate protein intake work together to build and maintain lean muscle mass.
  • Finally, we should not ignore the fact that those adults who were not getting enough protein were also getting insufficient levels of many micronutrients that affect the aging process. A good diet and supplementation are also important for healthy aging.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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