Some people are fearful of getting older because it is associated with a decline in physical and mental health. While growing old can come along with health challenges, adopting healthy habits early in life can moderate these challenges. Let’s look at nutrition’s role in healthy aging, particularly protein.
What is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient made up of compounds called amino acids. The body needs macronutrients in large amounts. Proteins play a vast number of essential roles in the body. Some functions include transporting substances, providing immunity, and growth and repair.
Protein Needs for Adults
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults over 18 years old is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This recommendation is the minimum amount of protein needed by the body to prevent malnutrition for the general population of adults. An active adult should aim to consume 1.2-2 grams.1 While the RDA for protein is the same for young and older adults, research shows that protein needs for older adults are above the RDA. Adults 65 years and older should consume 1-1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, and if they are physically active, they consume at least 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.2, 3
Consuming enough protein is particularly important for older adults because the body does not utilize protein as efficiently as younger adults.4 Muscle mass decreases 3-8% every ten years after the age of 30 and, more rapidly, 5-13% after the age of 60.5, 6 The involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength, and the ability to complete daily tasks associated with aging is called sarcopenia. As a result, older adults are at an increased risk of falling and may find daily activities more difficult, such as climbing stairs or getting dressed on their own.
Unidine chefs work directly with registered dietitians to customize menus based on evidenced-based nutrient needs for older adults. With protein being of great importance, Unidine’s goal is to provide an average of 90 to 120 grams of protein daily. For older adults, this is sufficient to meet protein recommendations to maintain muscle mass. Incorporating multiple servings of protein throughout the day also allows for greater protein options on the menu to choose from.
In instances where a patient or resident is not meeting protein needs from meal intake alone, our registered dietitians leverage Unidine’s Fresh Benefits program as a nutrition prescription. Utilizing high protein snacks and enhanced menu options, patients and residents can consume an additional 30 grams of protein per day to help meet their nutrition goals.
How Much Protein Should I Consume Daily?
|Age||Protein Needs (Sedentary)||Protein Needs for Exercise|
|>18||0.8 g/kg||1.2-2 g/kg|
|> 65||1.0-1.3 g/kg||³ 1.2 g/kg|
For example: Jane is 75 years old and exercises almost daily for 30 minutes. Jane weighs 160 pounds (160 lbs ÷ 2.2 = 72.7 kg of body weight) so, 72.7 kg body weight x 1.2 grams of protein = 87.3 grams of protein needed daily
Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein
The source of protein matters when it comes to maximizing the benefits of meeting your protein needs. Protein foods from animal sources have a higher biological value than those from plant sources. The biological value refers to a protein with many essential amino acids and is easily absorbed and used by the body.7 Animal protein sources include eggs, poultry, red meat, fish, and dairy products.
Plant sources of protein are highly nutritious and should also be consumed. However, more plant proteins will need to be consumed to meet daily protein needs. People following a vegetarian or vegan diet can be at risk of malnutrition if they do not prioritize protein foods. Plant protein sources include tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Protein should be added to all meals and snacks. Here are some high protein snacks to try when you are on the go8:
- Sliced apples with one tablespoon of peanut, almond, or sunflower seed butter.
- Wheat pita wedges served with two tablespoons of hummus or bean dip.
- Roast chickpeas seasoned with spices.
- Make a dip using low-fat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt for raw vegetables.
- Combining whole grain cereals, nuts or seeds, and dried fruit for ¼ cup serving of homemade trail mix.
Unidine’s Naturally Nourished recipes prioritize plant-based proteins for vegetarian and vegan customers. These recipes are a true collaboration of culinary and nutrition expertise that ensures adequate plant protein sources are at the center of the plate – creating a meal that isn’t only good for the environment but good for the body.
Aging does not have to mean you lose the ability to complete everyday activities. Though it is true that with age, the body becomes less efficient at utilizing protein to keep the body strong and healthy, we still have some control over how aging affects muscle mass.
Pairing a healthy diet with exercise is the next step to optimizing muscle growth and maintaining muscle mass.
How Much Should I Exercise?
|5 days/week||Moderate to vigorous||30 minutes/day||Aerobic activity|
|2 days/week||5-6 to 7-8 on 0-10 intensity scale||1-3 sets for 8-12 reps||Weight training|
Regular exercise helps older adults maintain their independence and ability to perform daily tasks such as bathing and toileting.9 Find an activity you enjoy and grab a buddy to help keep you consistent with exercising.
To maintain muscle mass, adequate protein sources, whether animal or plant sources, and exercise are two components that work together and are of great importance with aging.
Sollange Clement, RD, LDN
Sollange Clement is a Registered Dietitian and graduate of Howard University. Her experience spans almost a decade. She has worked in multiple settings, including government, healthcare, and the food and beverage industry. Currently, she is a freelance health and nutrition content writer. She is from the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago. During the warmer months, you can find her at wine tastings, festivals, or traveling whenever she can. On a chilly Sunday, hot tea and a good book are preferred.
- Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance [published correction appears in Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Jan;49(1):222].Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(3):543-568. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
- Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013;14(8):542-559. doi:10.1016/j.jamda.2013.05.021
- Fink HH, Mikesky AE.Practical Applications in Sports Nutrition. 6th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2021.
- Rogeri PS, Zanella R Jr, Martins GL, et al. Strategies to Prevent Sarcopenia in the Aging Process: Role of Protein Intake and Exercise. Nutrients. 2021;14(1):52. Published 2021 Dec 23. doi:10.3390/nu14010052
- Kizilarslanoglu MC, Kuyumcu ME, Yesil Y, Halil M. Sarcopenia in critically ill patients.J Anesth. 2016;30(5):884-890. doi:10.1007/s00540-016-2211-4
- Volpi E, Nazemi R, Fujita S. Muscle tissue changes with aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2004;7(4):405-410. doi:10.1097/01.mco.0000134362.76653.b2
- Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-130. Published 2004 Sep 1.
- Smart snacking for adults and teens – eatright.org. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/media/files/eatrightdocuments/nnm/smartsnackingforadultsandteens.pdf. Accessed May 22, 2022.
- Physical activity guidelines for Americans 2nd edition. US Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition_Presentation.pdf. Accessed May 22, 2022.