Protein Needs For Older Adults

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Fitness and Health, Muscle Therapy and Health

How Much Protein Do We Need?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

man lifts weightsWhat are the protein needs for older adults?  In previous “Health Tips From the Professor” I have covered the optimal amount of protein for weight loss diets in high protein diets and weight loss and following workouts . In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I will review the latest information about protein needs as we age.

To put this in perspective, many Americans suffer from sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) as they age.

Some of you may be saying “So what? I wasn’t planning on being a champion weight lifter in my golden years.” The “So what” is that loss of muscle mass leads to loss of mobility, a tendency to fall (which often leads to debilitating bone fractures) and a lower metabolic rate – which leads to obesity and all of the illnesses that go along with obesity.

How Can We Prevent Loss of Muscle Mass As We Age?

Fortunately, sarcopenia is not an inevitable consequence of aging. There are things that we can do to prevent it. The most important thing that we can do to prevent muscle loss as we age is to exercise – and I’m talking about resistance (weight) training, not just aerobic exercise.

But we also need to look at our protein intake and our leucine intake. Protein is important because our muscle fibers are made of protein.

Leucine is an essential amino acid. It is important because it stimulates the muscle’s ability to make new protein. Leucine and insulin act synergistically to stimulate muscle protein synthesis after exercise. I have covered the evidence behind leucine’s importance in maintaining and building muscle mass in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor”, Leucine Triggers Muscle Mass.

Do Our Protein Needs Increase As We Age?

protein shakeInterestingly, our protein needs actually increase as we age. Campbell et al (Journal of Gerontolgy: Medical Sciences 56A: M373-M380, 2001) showed several years ago that RDA levels of protein were not sufficient to maintain muscle mass in both men & women aged 55 to 77 years old.

Many experts recommend that those of us in our golden years should consume the amount of protein in grams that is equivalent to half our body weight in pounds every day.

When Should We Eat Our Protein?

When we consume the protein is also important. Forget that continental breakfast, salad for lunch and protein-rich dinner. As we age we increasingly need high quality protein at every meal.

In one study, young adults (average age = 31), experienced increased muscle protein synthesis when they consumed as little as 15 grams of protein at a meal, but older adults (average age = 68) experienced no increase in muscle protein synthesis in response to the same low protein meal (Katsanos et al, Am J Clin Nutr 82: 1065-1073).

However, when the amount of protein in a meal was increased to 30 grams (equivalent to a 4 oz piece of chicken or beef) both younger and older adults were able to use that protein to build muscle (Symons et al,Am J Clin Nutr 86: 451-456, 2007).

But, 30 grams seems to be about optimal. Protein intakes above 30 grams in a single meal resulted in no further increase in muscle protein synthesis (Symons et al, J Am Diet Assoc 109: 1582-1586, 2009), which means you can’t hope to get all of the muscle building benefits of protein in a single meal.

As a consequence of these studies most experts recommend that we “golden agers” aim for 20 to 30 grams of high quality protein with every meal.

How Much Leucine Do We Need?

leucine triggers muscle growthThe story with leucine is similar. 1.7 grams of leucine was not sufficient to increase muscle protein synthesis following exercise in older adults, while 2.7 grams was sufficient (Katsanos et al, Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006). So the experts recommend that older adults get 3 grams of leucine in our diet following workouts to maximize the effect of the workout.

And, of course, if we want to maximize the effects of resistance training, both the protein and leucine need to be consumed after we exercise, not before (Fujita et al, J Appl Physiol 106: 1730-1736, 2009).

Where Do We Get the Protein and Leucine We Need?

So, where do we get the amount of protein and leucine that we are looking for?

If you want to get them from food alone, 4 oz servings of meat are a good starting place – with chicken being the best (35 grams of protein and 2.7 grams of leucine). Dairy, eggs and vegetable foods are much lower in leucine, protein or both.

Unfortunately, I keep running into seniors who are fully convinced that broccoli and tofu will meet their protein needs. I fully understand the rationale for choosing vegetarian protein sources, but you need a bit more than broccoli and tofu if you are going to meet your protein needs in your golden years.

For example, a 4 ounce serving of tofu provides only 10 grams of protein and 0.8 grams of leucine, and a 1.5 cup serving of broccoli provides only 4.2 grams of protein and a miserly 0.36 grams of leucine. That makes it very difficult to meet your target of 20-30 grams of protein and around 2.7 grams of leucine with each meal.

I’m not saying that you can’t get enough protein and leucine to maintain muscle mass on a vegetarian diet. However, you will need to plan that diet very carefully.

So, if you want to know what the old professor does, here it is:

I work out almost every day. On the days when I work out in the morning I rely on a protein shake immediately after the workout to meet my protein and leucine goals. On the days when I train at the gym in the late afternoon, I rely on 4 oz of chicken or fish with dinner to meet those goals.

Those of you who know me know that I will never be featured in muscle magazine, but at least I’m gaining muscle mass – not losing it.

 

The Bottom Line

  • As we age many Americans suffer from sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass). The loss of muscle mass leads to loss of mobility, a tendency to fall (and break things) and a lower metabolic rate – which leads to obesity and all of the illnesses that go along with obesity.
  • The most important thing that we can do to prevent muscle loss as we age is to exercise – especially resistance (weight) training exercise – at least 30 minutes every day. It is also important to make sure that we are getting adequate intake of protein and the essential amino acid leucine.
  • Our protein needs increase as we age. Recent studies suggest that the RDA levels of protein are not sufficient to maintain muscle mass in people over the age of 55. Many experts recommend that those of us in our golden years consume the amount of protein in grams that is equivalent to half our body weight in pounds every day.
  • Recent studies show that it is important to spread that protein out through the day rather than consume one protein rich meal at the end of the day. If we are over 50 we should be aiming at 20-30 grams of protein per meal. However, more than 30 grams of protein at a single serving appears to provide no additional benefit.
  • Seniors also appear to need more leucine in each meal than younger adults if they wish to preserve muscle mass. Young adults need only around 1.7 grams of leucine per serving to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, while mature adults may need as much as 2.7 grams per serving.
  • Well-designed protein shakes and 4 ounces of lean meats are the easiest way for seniors to meet their protein and leucine needs. Vegetarian diets can provide the protein and leucine needed to maintain muscle mass in seniors, but those diets need to be very well planned. Broccoli and tofu just don’t make the grade if you are serious about preserving muscle mass.

 

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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Latest Article

Are Pregnant Women and Children Dangerously Deficient in Omega-3s?

Posted August 13, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient fishIt is no secret that the American population is deficient in omega-3s. Numerous studies have documented that fact. There are many reasons for Americans’ low intake of omega-3s:

  • The high price of omega-3-rich fish.
  • Concerns about sustainability, heavy metal contamination, and/or PCB contamination of omega-3 rich fish.
  • Misleading headlines claiming that omega-3 supplements are worthless and may even do you harm.

Of course, the questions you are asking are probably?

  • How deficient are we?
  • Does it matter?

The latest study (M Thompson et al, Nutrients, 2019, 11: 177, doi: 10.3390/nu11010177) goes a long way towards answering those important questions.

How Was The Study Done?

scientific studyThis study used data on 45,347 Americans who participated in NHANES surveys between 2003 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).

EPA and DHA intake from foods was 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.

To assess EPA and DHA intake from supplements study participants were asked what supplements they had taken in the past 30 days, how many days out of 30 they had taken it, and the amount that was taken on those days.

 

What Is The Omega-3 Status Of The American Population?

 

omega 3 statusThe results of the NHANES surveys were shocking.

In terms of total EPA+DHA intake:

  • EPA+DHA intake across all age groups was lower than recommended.
  • Toddlers (ages 1-5), children (ages 6-11), and adolescents (ages 12-19) had lower EPA+DHA intakes than adults (ages 20-55) and seniors (ages > 55).
  • Women had lower EPA+DHA intakes than men.
  • Pregnant women and women of childbearing age did not differ in their EPA+DHA.
  • Pregnant women consumed less fish than women of childbearing age (perhaps because of concerns about heavy metal contamination).
  • Pregnant women consumed more omega-3 supplements.

In terms of EPA+DHA from supplements:

  • Less than 1% of the American population reported using omega-3 supplements.
  • The one exception was pregnant women. 7.3% of pregnant women reported taking an omega-3 supplement.
  • People taking omega-3 supplements had significantly higher EPA+DHA intake than people not taking omega-3 supplements.
  • This was also true for pregnant women. Those taking omega-3 supplements had higher EPA+DHA intake.

Of course, like any clinical study, it has strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest weakness of this study is that omega-3 intake is based on the participants recall of what they ate. The strengths of the study are its size (45,347 participants) and the fact that its estimate of omega-3 intake is consistent with several smaller studies.

 

Are Americans Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

pregnant women omega 3 deficient questionsNow we are ready to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. Let’s start with the first one: “How deficient are we?”

You would think the answer to that question would be easy. It is not. This study provides a precise estimate of American’s omega-3 intake. The problem is there is no consensus as to how much omega-3s we need. There is no RDA for omega-3s.

There are, in fact, three sets of guidelines for how much omega-3s we need, and they disagree.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 100-150 mg/day at ages 2-4 years to 200-500 mg/day for adults.
  • The US National Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations for EPA+DHA intake range from 70 mg/day for ages 1-3 to 110 mg/day for adult females and 160 mg/day for adult males.
  • As if that weren’t confusing enough, an international group of experts recently convened for a “Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids” (Workshop). This group recommended an EPA+DHA intake of 440 mg/day for adults and 520 mg/day for pregnant and lactating women.

Using these recommendations as guidelines, this study reported that:

  • EPA+DHA intake for children 1-5 years old was ~25% of the WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for children 6-11 years old was ~27% of WHO recommendations and ~40% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adolescents 12-19 years old was ~50% of IOM recommendations (The WHO did not have a separate category for adolescents.
  • EPA+DHA intake for adults 20-55 years old was ~30% of WHO recommendations, and ~65% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for seniors >55 years old was 38% of WHO recommendations and 82% of IOM recommendations.
  • EPA+DHA intake for pregnant women was ~20% of Workshop recommendations (The WHO and IOM did not have a separate category for pregnant women).

While the percentage deficiency varied according to the EPA+DHA guidelines used, it is clear from these results that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet.

The authors concluded: “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”

 

Are Pregnant Women and Young Children Dangerously Deficient In Omega-3s?

 

danger symbolWhile the authors concluded that all age groups were deficient in omega-3s, they were particularly concerned about the omega-3 deficiencies in pregnant women and young children.

The authors said: “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that low omega-3 fatty acid intake is consistent among the US population and could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women).”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

pregnant women omega 3 deficient pregnancyHowever, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups. This answers the second question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Does it matter?”

According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

None of these associations between low omega-3 intake and adverse health outcomes have been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the evidence is strong enough that we should be alarmed by the very low omega-3 intake in pregnant women and young children.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study concluded: “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”

omega 3 supplementsThey went on to say: “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

I agree. Given the low omega-3 intake in these population group and current guidelines for omega-3 intake. I recommend:

  • Pregnant & lactating women (and women of childbearing age who might become pregnant) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 520 mg of EPA+DHA/day.
  • Young children (ages 1-5) take an omega-3 supplement providing around 100 mg of DHA/day.

Of course, this study also confirmed that Americans of all age groups are not getting enough omega-3s from their diet, and low omega-3 intake may increase the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that high purity omega-3 supplements may reduce heart disease risk.

You will find my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation for adults in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

The largest study to date (45,347 participants) measured omega-3 intake for Americans of all ages and compared that to current recommendations for omega-3 intake.

The authors of the study concluded:

  • “We found omega-3 intakes across all age groups was lower than recommended amounts.”
  • “Low omega-3 fatty acid intake … could increase the risk for adverse health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable populations (e.g., young children and pregnant women.”

In part, the focus on young children and pregnant women was based on their very low omega-3 intake. With intakes at 20-27% of recommended levels, I would consider these groups to be dangerously deficient in omega-3s.

However, the focus on young children and pregnant women was also based on the seriousness of the adverse health outcomes associated with low omega-3 intake in these population groups.

  • According to the authors low intake of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and early childhood is associated with maternal depression, pre-term births, low birth-weight babies, increased risk of allergies and asthma, problems with learning and cognition, and other neurocognitive outcomes.

There is, however, a simple solution. The authors of this study also concluded:

  • “Individuals taking EPA/DHA containing supplements had significantly elevated intake compared to individuals not taking omega-3 fatty acid-containing supplements or not reporting any supplement use.”
  • “As supplement use is associated with increased omega-3 intake, supplementation could be an important source of EPA/DHA, particularly for pregnant women given their lower fish consumption compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age.”

For more details on the study and my recommendations for omega-3 supplementation, 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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