Most of you have probably heard the word protein. You possibly associate it with body builders, athletes and gym bunnies trying to gain muscle. What you may not be aware of is that protein is essential for everyone and we are becoming more aware of how important it is as we age.
Protein is a key nutrient that makes up and/or is involved in a wide range of functions –think muscle mass maintenance/growth, hormones, outer membranes of cells, enzymes and antibodies for our immune system.
There has been research showing that after the age of 50 muscle loss increases and it also becomes harder for our bodies to make more muscle! Not a great combination.
This little situation does matter too, as good muscle mass can help maintain strength and mobility. Good strength and mobility can mean greater independence for the person, and potentially reduces the risk of falls and fractures. A good protein intake also ensures that all those functions described above can work optimally.
It is not all doom and gloom however, with good quality protein sources and resistance exercise, those over 50 can help minimise this issue. There is limited research into exactly the amount needed for each age group, but there is plenty of experts that believe that 1-1.2g/kg body weight/day is a good place to aim for *. Current recommendations are for a minimum of 0.8g/kg body weight/day.
So what is good quality protein?
Animal meats provide you with the most protein per typical serve of food, and are also high in leucine which has been shown to trigger muscle synthesis if you reach a level high enough.
Your next best sources of protein per typical serves are things like:
Ideally a combination of foods should be eaten to get a whole host of nutrients as well as protein.
What do we do about it?
While most adults in NZ do not struggle to get in enough protein, as per the 2008/2009 national nutrition survey, in practice I found a lot of our older population were not meeting their protein needs (particularly those with illness). There would often be a reduction in their protein foods choices; I think most often because they can be a bit more time consuming to cook, and also cost. It would not be unusual to have breakfast of being a piece of marmalade on toast with a cup of tea, a cup of vegetable soup at lunch with a slice of bread, and then maybe a small frozen piece of fish with some vegetables at dinner.
If you are older or have older loved ones, I encourage you to make sure that you/they are having regular high protein sources in the diet everyday and encourage some resistance exercise a few times a week for an optimal muscle profile.
Also don’t think because you are younger that you are off the hook either – if you are not getting good sources of protein and not doing regular resistance exercise then you are potentially losing overall muscle mass too and not setting yourself up well for your future older adult self.
*If you have any kidney impairment, I would ensure that you talk to your doctor or dietitian before increasing protein intake, as too much protein could compromise your kidney function.