The Protein Debate: How Much to Consume Over 60

As we get older, we all lose muscle mass and strength. It’s part of the aging process known as sarcopenia. The good news is that with the proper diet and exercise sarcopenia can be slowed down.

Skeletal muscle makes up about 40 percent of an adult male’s body weight. That’s about 600 muscles. Keeping those muscles strong takes protein. The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) calls for a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. For a man weighing 175 pounds that would be 64 grams of protein. There is plenty of evidence that older men, and women, don’t meet the RDA on protein, making the loss of muscle mass an even bigger problem. Multiple studies, including one published in the American Journal of Physiology, recommend that everyone over 60 should double the amount of protein they consume each day. More protein, the study argues, speeds up the rate of muscle protein synthesis. This means you could build muscle faster, countering the muscle loss. It’s not hard to get that extra protein—three ounces of chicken is 27 grams and three ounces of salmon is 19 grams.

But Douglas Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and metabolism at The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, said doubling protein intake can translate into a extra calories. “One-hundred and fifty to two hundred grams a day isn’t going to do you any harm, but that’s a lot of protein. That’s a lot of food. There’s no need to eat that much.”

Plus, he said starting good habits when you’re young might help you maintain them over a lifetime. Changing life-long behavior is tricky, and instead, according to Dr. Paddon-Jones, we should start consuming the appropriate amount of protein at an early age. And just stick with it.

“The study suggests that if you’re older you might have anabolic resistance. You might not be able to use the protein in your diet to build and repair muscle,” he said. “They argue more protein counters what happens when you age. My argument: put a decent amount in to begin with, then you don’t need to change.”

A decent amount, Dr. Paddon-Jones said, is equal amounts at all three meals—20 to 35 grams or so being a reasonable, moderate serving. “If you’re a tiny person, you aim for the low-side. If you’re an athlete you need more of everything.”
And if your appetite shrinks as you age, he said, skip the roll and the starch and make sure the protein still lands on the plate.

A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition agrees with Dr. Paddon-Jones that you should spread your protein out throughout the day. Researchers looked at a group of healthy, older adults for more than three years, assessing their strength and mobility. For many, muscle strength declined. However, those who spread their protein out throughout the day had greater muscle strength at both the beginning and the end of the study. Researchers recommend getting protein at each meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and even at snack time.

Regardless of which protein prescription you subscribe to, Dr. Paddon-Jones said that eating protein won’t have a dramatic effect, rather a slow-drip over years that will set you up for success as you age. In other words—the protein will be helping you, but you won’t notice its impact.

Of course, diet alone won’t build strong muscles. You need to get up and exercise. Doctors recommend strength-training at least twice a week, consisting of 10 to 12 reps of multiple exercises that target the arms, abdomen, back, shoulders, chest, and legs.

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