About 30% of older adults consume less protein than is adequate for their health. Protein is essential for muscle health, among others, and inadequate protein intake among seniors combined with their inclination for a more sedentary lifestyle puts them at risk for muscle deterioration, compromised mobility, slower recovery from illnesses, functional impairment, and, consequently, greater dependence on others/loss of independence.
Whether healthy or unhealthy, seniors need to eat more protein than when they were younger. More protein is necessary to maintain muscle mass, muscle strength, bone health, and other physiological functions. Increased protein intake is even more important for older adults who are losing weight, facing hospitalization, or dealing with an illness (either acute or chronic), as their aging bodies are already less efficient in processing protein and these stressful periods only make matters worse.
Age-related loss of muscle mass cannot be prevented, even with increased protein intake. But the opposite – not eating enough – can exacerbate muscle loss.
What is the recommended protein intake for seniors?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight per day. RDAs rarely address the nutritional needs of the older population, but an international group of nutrition experts and physicians have come up with a number based on their meta-analysis of previous studies: a 25-50 percent increase over the RDA for the average adult, or 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for healthy seniors.
For seniors with an acute or chronic disease, the recommended daily protein intake is 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight, or up to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight if they’re suffering from a severe illness or are malnourished. (It is important to note that these recommendations do not apply to seniors with kidney disease.)
It is also recommended that seniors spread out their protein intake within the day to compensate for their body’s decreased efficiency in processing protein. According to Dr. Elena Volpi, Geriatrics and Cell Biology professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, how much protein an older adult eats per meal is more important than the total protein intake for the entire day.
She explains, “If I eat too little protein during a meal, I may not adequately stimulate the uptake of amino acids into skeletal muscle. If I eat too much, say from a large T-bone steak, I won’t be able to store all of it away.” Her recommendation for older adults is 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal.
What is the best protein for seniors?
Unless an older adult has dietary restrictions, they can get their daily protein from any healthy food source. Vegetarians, however, may have a tougher time meeting their protein needs, as plant protein does not contain all nine essential amino acids required by the body. Animal protein remains the best and most complete source. Some lean red meat is okay in moderate amounts and frequency.
Protein supplements only become necessary when a person is sick, malnourished, in hospital, or recovering from hospitalization. Real food should always be the first choice, but a protein shake is also okay as long as it is not being consumed to replace a real meal. Before taking any protein shake, it is best to consult a doctor first.
Whey protein, in particular, has been shown to be the best protein source for older adults who suffer from muscle loss due to inactivity associated with an illness or prolonged hospitalization. Whey can effectively help rebuild muscle once activity is resumed after an extended period of inactivity.
Whey is the highest quality protein – it is loaded with all essential amino acids and has a high amount of leucine, an essential amino acid that the body cannot make and must derive from food.
As a supplement and not for meal replacement, whey shakes are best taken twice a day to aid recovery. The creatine in protein shakes also provides muscle strength support; the vitamin D and calcium which are also common ingredients in protein shakes support bone health.
When buying protein shakes, seniors should take note of the following:
- Seniors should avoid protein shakes that contain a high sugar content, as this is an independent risk factor for diabetes.
- Seniors who are prone to headaches, heartburn, irritability, and increased heart rate when consuming caffeine should make sure that a protein shake does not contain caffeine and other stimulants, including green tea.
- Seniors on blood thinners should check the vitamin K content of a protein shake, as some products can have up to 40% of what they need per 8 ounces, and too much vitamin K can make their medication less effective.
- Some protein shakes also include Senna as an ingredient. This is a laxative and may result in dehydration.
- Seniors may also want to avoid protein shakes that contain dandelion root, which is also a laxative or may also act as a diuretic.
Whether for recovery after an illness or to help slow down age-related muscle loss, or both, it is best to combine increased protein intake with some form of exercise to further improve muscle health.
Best Protein for Seniors – The Bottom Line
Whether healthy or otherwise, seniors need to increase their daily protein intake to maintain muscle health and help stave off the effects of muscular decline. The best protein sources are real foods, particularly animal protein as this contains all essential amino acids.
Among all types of protein, whey is the highest quality. It is rich in all essential amino acids and has a high amount of leucine, an essential amino acid that humans can only derive from food.
Whey protein shakes are not just beneficial to bodybuilders. This popular muscle-building supplement can also benefit seniors to help maintain their muscle health and slow down age-related muscle loss.
Especially when combined with exercise, whey shakes can boost physical strength through muscle building. Protein supplements in the form of whey shakes are also recommended for seniors who have been inactive for an extended period of time as a result of an illness and prolonged hospitalization. However, it is important to remember that protein shakes should not be taken as meal replacements but only as a supplement to a protein-rich diet.
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