What did you have for breakfast this morning? Did it include a significant amount of protein?
Protein is more important in our diets as we grow older, and our need for calories and some other nutrients declines as we age. But this is not the case for protein. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Older adults may benefit from proportionally more protein in their diets — evenly distributed across the day — for muscle health.
World-renowned protein expert Douglas Paddon-Jones was in Boise speaking at several events late last year. Paddon-Jones is a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, and I had the opportunity to sit down with him and ask some questions. Here is what he had to say.
Previously, it was believed that high-protein intake resulted in bone loss, strained the kidneys and was especially risky for older people. But the truth is that while very few people need these higher protein intakes of up to 35 percent of their daily calories, the higher intakes are only hazardous for people already suffering from some type of kidney function impairment. (Dietitians usually recommend that 10 to 20 percent of a healthy diet be made up of protein. That’s about 60 to 100 grams of protein daily.)
As we age, we progressively lose muscle, and it is difficult — but certainly not impossible — to build new muscle. We just aren’t as efficient at this as we once were. This muscle loss is called sarcopenia. After about age 50, we lose 0.5 percent to 2 percent of total muscle mass each year. Paddon-Jones suggests that this loss can begin at even younger ages if low protein intake is paired with inactivity.
Fear not, baby boomers, there is hope. Paddon-Jones says research demonstrates that consuming moderate amounts of protein throughout the day and increasing physical activity can help prevent or reduce the effects of sarcopenia.
How to get protein throughout the day
Once you consume a meal with 4 to 5 ounces of high-quality protein, which is about 30 grams or the size of a deck of cards, your protein tank is full.
You will be close to maxing out your muscle-building potential for that three-hour to four-hour period. If you eat too much protein (and take in too many calories), your body will turn the excess protein into carbohydrates and ultimately fat.
Most of us don’t eat enough protein for breakfast and eat too much for dinner, leading to inefficiency.
Instead, distributing protein intake throughout the day at all three meals will maximize the use of amino acids for building muscle.
Add high-quality protein to your daily intake
Animal sources of protein offer your diet the highest quality of protein and generally provide the most leucine. Leucine is an essential amino acid that, Paddon-Jones says, is a key to the synthesis of muscle tissue. Whey protein from dairy products has been found to be especially high in leucine.
Foods like eggs, milk and yogurt are examples of high-quality soft foods that are easy to add to the diet, even for older people who have problems chewing and swallowing.
And what if you don’t eat meat? A plant-based diet can be very healthy and you can still achieve the higher recommended protein intake, but it requires much more planning, forethought and a greater total amount of food, Paddon-Jones says.
If you’re not a vegan, dairy and eggs are still excellent options, and if you are vegan, seek out a combination of protein sources such as soy products, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.
Use ’em or lose ’em — exercise your muscles
When you are inactive, the increased rate of muscle loss can be quite dramatic. If you are older, bed-ridden or hospitalized, you can lose as much as two pounds of muscle just from your legs after seven days of bed rest. For athletes, it may take several months of training to put on two pounds of muscle, but only seven days to lose it if they are at rest from an injury.
Paddon-Jones cautions that when you increase protein intake, you should reduce the amount of simple carbohydrates — i.e. sugar — to keep your calorie intake the same.
Better yet, redistribute your protein to breakfast, and steer away from just jam and toast for breakfast. If you are a diehard tea-and-toast lover, try some peanut butter on the toast and some milk in the tea!
Obsessing over the exact proportion of protein in the diet is unnecessary — unless you’re going for the gold, training hard or working toward some personal best. Balancing the distribution is the key.
SeAnne Safaii, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho Dietetics Program and a past president of the Idaho Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Here is a list of high-protein foods to add to your meals:
Grams of protein
*Plant-based proteins such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are incomplete proteins in that they do not provide sufficient amounts of essential amino acid. They must be combined with other sources of amino acids to make complete proteins. Therefore larger serving sizes may be necessary.