Are you young at heart? What about “young at body”? We go crazy trying to maintain that goal, but the truth of the matter is that most of us lose 0.5% to 1% of muscle mass per year starting at age 40. So by the time we hit 60, this gradual loss has really added up. Age-related muscle loss increases the risk of falling. It also can cause you to gain or lose too much weight either because of muscle wasting or because you don’t have the energy to stay in shape. And not only will you feel old, you’ll likely look old. There’s an easy way, through diet, to help prevent loss of muscle mass, but there is some controversy about how to do it right. Let our expert guide you.
THE TRUTH ABOUT PROTEIN
As we age, we experience anabolic resistance. This means that the body does not turn the protein we consume into muscle as efficiently as it once did. Researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences have come up with a solution. They say to eat a lot of protein—much more than the USDA recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams per two pounds of body weight, which amounts to about 48 grams per day for a 120-pound woman and 68 grams for a 170-pound man. They recommend doubling that amount. These researchers found that it was OK to protein-load at dinner, as most adults do, as opposed to worrying about getting equal amounts of protein at every meal. You’ll still reap the benefits of increased protein intake, they said.
They conducted a study in which they divided 20 adults, ages 52 to 75, into four groups. Two groups were assigned a diet that matched the USDA RDA standard, with one group consuming protein in equal portions throughout the day and the other consuming the majority of it at dinner. The other two groups consumed twice the USDA RDA standard, following the same even and uneven protein-distribution patterns.
The results: After just four days, regardless of the distribution of protein, those who consumed the higher amount of it had higher whole-body net protein gains with higher rates of protein synthesis—the ability to turn protein into muscle—compared with those who ate less of it.
EAT PROTEIN RIGHT
But hold off on packing in the protein at dinner, says Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, professor of nutrition and metabolism at The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. He challenges the study findings and says that we should think in terms of maximum protein consumption per meal and not focus on the total protein consumption per day.
Like most researchers, Dr. Paddon-Jones agrees that increasing protein consumption over the RDA is important when it comes to building and maintaining muscle mass and function, especially for older adults. But protein-loading at dinner or at any meal will not produce the same protein synthesis as eating adequate amounts of protein throughout the day.
Through his research efforts, Dr. Paddon-Jones found that somewhere around 30 grams of protein, which equals about four ounces of lean meat, is close to the maximum amount of protein our bodies can use at one time to build and repair muscle. “Although there is no harm and potentially some benefits to consuming additional protein at each meal if your energy demands are high, excess consumption of any macronutrient is increasingly likely to be turned into glucose and eventually fat,” he said. Our bodies don’t have the temporary storage capacity for excess protein to be used later or the next day in the same way carbohydrates and fat are used.
“Between 25 grams and 30 grams of protein is all most of us need per meal,” says Dr. Paddon-Jones.
TREAT MEALS RIGHT
Breakfast is the low hanging fruit when it comes to improving your protein intake per meal because it’s the meal that people most often skip or the one that is usually virtually devoid of any protein. Getting at least 25 grams of protein at breakfast might seem daunting to many. Dr. Paddon-Jones urges adults to forgo bagels, croissants and sugary cereals and to think eggs (two scrambled equals 14 grams of protein), yogurt (20 grams per seven-ounce container of 2% fat Greek yogurt) and oatmeal (6 grams per one-cup serving of regular cooked, not instant). Add nuts (6 grams per ounce of almonds), whole-wheat toast (7 grams per two slices) and a latte (8 grams per cup of milk) and you’ll be up to 25 grams of protein quicker than you can say mocha cappuccino.
On the flip side, while many people skip breakfast, they overeat protein at dinner, often eating a steak the length of their forearm or a chicken breast the size of their face. OK, maybe we are exaggerating just a bit—but you get the picture. Most lean meats have about 30 grams of protein per four-ounce serving. Anything over that amount is probably not doing you a lot of good even if it’s the only protein you’ve eaten all day, says Dr. Paddon-Jones.
For vegetarians or vegans, soy, legumes, quinoa, nuts and mushrooms are protein-rich foods and all vegetables have some sort of protein in them. Spinach, for example, has five grams per cup.
If you’re too busy to get your protein from food at any given meal, protein powders or bars can be an alternative—but read labels carefully, says Dr. Paddon-Jones. The 20 to 30 grams of protein that come in a serving of whey protein powder, for example, won’t do you as much good if the product is laden with sugar and fat. His go-to protein powder when he’s training for a sporting event (where extra protein is especially useful) is plain whey protein powder that he dresses up with a little honey or fruit for flavor. (A brand recommended by Daily Health News medical advisor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, founder and director of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, is NOW Foods Whey Protein Isolate.)
BUILD MUSCLE THROUGH DIET
As we all know, diet and exercise are both important when it comes to health, regardless of age. But focus first on nutrition in preparation for exercise, says Dr. Paddon-Jones, because diet is the fundamental to getting the most benefit from fitness routines. Consuming the optimal amount of protein per meal will maximize your body’s ability to use that protein efficiently.