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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High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

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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