Are you confused about protein muscle, and their relationship to longevity? You’re not alone. How much protein do you need? Where should it come from? Is all protein created equal? Do you get enough?
The first question isn’t whether you get “enough” protein.
The first question is how much protein you think is “enough.”
The question is how the protein is measured, the quality, and it’s impact on you long term. That’s about muscle.
That is about body fat, obesity, frailty, and the combination of frailty and obesity that is most deadly.
You can make changes in your diet from low protein to higher (within recommended amounts) and feel great. You can also go from animal to plant-based diets or plant to animal and report feeling great. Changes (with good health in mind) often act like a natural detox. It makes sense if you’re putting something in your body had been lacking you’ll feel better. The same is true if you remove what your body didn’t need. If processed food, wine, too much coffee comes out and real whole food goes in there’s going to be some positive impact.
What about the whole picture?
“I feel great” is about right now.
What about long term?
That’s really the question about any diet or lifestyle. Science studies adults at the end of life to look back and see what happened. By then however, life has changed. We’re looking back at those long-living adults from the Blue Zones and finding many of them have had plant-based diets, for instance. They’ve lived with lower weight, less obesity, and disease. Thus, they’re qualified as living healthier for longer.
Can we compare protein for muscle and longevity now and then?
There are a few things we need to dig into before we base changes in 2018 to what worked in another time (and in another lifestyle). They didn’t live with technology. They don’t live in an age where activity has to be sought and planned. They don’t live in an age when food is delivered in boxes to your door or made in Instant Pots, microwaves, or enjoyed with wine as a way to calm down. Family life was different – often consolidated under one roof – and there weren’t common single-parenting situations if even due to work-life balance needs.
They didn’t live with the same depleted soil, same farming techniques, pesticides, hormone-injected livestock, or same water and air quality.
It makes it hard to compare oldest of old now in isolated areas of the world with the mid-life way we now live and assume that if we ate what they ate we too will age better.
It might be true. But it’s a bit of a gamble to assume it would be so.
We’ve taken more prescription medications, more hormones, been exposed to more toxins than generations before us and will continue to be. What are the effects on our health and ability to thrive?
We don’t know unless we test.
It’s attractive though. Especially if you’re a woman who has struggled with weight or you’ve settled into eating energy bars, drinking wine, enjoying coffee, and looking for answers to balance the flip flop between healthy and convenience foods for years.
Change Can Be Good
Changing your diet in any way temporarily – that is you haven’t taken on a mindset your done with dieting and the long term route actually IS the short cut – can be a detox. That is so long as you’ve gotten wise to the toxic sugar-free fat free approach that can actually make your body store more fat.
I’d love to hear if you’ve done a vegan diet. More importantly, if you’ve done it and measured your health changes and body composition over a long term basis.
Vegan or vegetarianism still includes eating with health-minded muscle maintenance in mind. If you cut out foods, you’ll lose weight. More plants in your daily diet can feel great. And if you’ve given your body a break from digesting animal protein, you will feel good for a while, maybe long term and maybe just for a few months. You eliminate consumption of some hormones (from eating other animals) that could be effecting your own. Most vegans eat an increased number of carbs and fat in order to take in protein. (That, by the way is not judgement: just fact).
There are those that do it very responsibly and consciously. It’s not a “diet.” It didn’t start out being a diet to lose weight though it may have been in response to health markers. Successful doctors, athletes, including endurance athletes have done it. Eating the same thing repeatedly can put a vegan who has fewer choices to begin with (if she’s attempting to ingest protein at recommended levels) at greater risk for gut issues as a result of food sensitivities.
Maybe you too can do it.
I couldn’t. Much as I would like to, I showed signs of weakness and fatigue even as I diligently included protein and carefully tended to micronutrients during my three-month stint. Month one began as a challenge to make changes in habits that had been 49 years in the making. But by the end of month one and certainly two, I was in. It felt good. I hadn’t decided to do three months, but at the end of each month I assessed and decided. Near the end of month two I began to feel weaker and workouts suffered. The same weight was heavy, the same cardio was more breathless.
How did I look? Thin, lean, muscular, but I was losing muscle as a high proportion to any weight changes. I got lots of compliments. We’re that kind of society. Thin is good. Even though you’re weak and have less energy or you might be at risk for frailty as you age, you look great! We have to be careful not to be caught in that trap.
Your Unique Protein for Muscle and Longevity Needs
Every body is unique. We all have muscles, bones, and hormones. We all have needs for food that fortifies and movement that strengthens, and rest that restores. Many women in midlife and beyond have similar needs but even in this group, you’re unique.
You have a unique body type that suggests your need for weight training is unique, your ideal cardio is unique, and your ideal combination of mobility and stability is unique.
You have a unique gut biome that suggests certain foods right now will be tolerated better or worse.
You have hormones that are changing daily, weekly, and monthly even after menopause. Those changes are based on food you eat, movement you do, and stressors that influence you.
How to Assess the Impact of Protein
If we isolate the focus on protein for muscle maintenance this conversation is not complete unless you know your body composition. As soon as a young adult begins exercise the body composition assessment should be mandatory. Unfortunately, it’s not. If it was, it would help athletes, individuals with disordered eating, middle-aged adults, moms, corporate athletes, older adults, and frail oldest of old. There is not one individual for whom this is not a “must know” measure.
Registered dietitians, nutritionists, personal trainers, health coaches, hormone experts, and physicians, should all be assessing or requesting and tracking body composition.
So often a plant-based diet chases a series of other diets. Have you tried them? Whole30, intermittent fasting, Bone Broth diet, or the Atkins, the Mediterranean, and the basic low carb, low fat, low sugar diets are a significant part of most women’s lives.
It makes sense. Structure provides freedom. So you generally feel good going on a diet. You have a plan! Plant-based diets increase the amount of plant food you eat! That’s a good thing. If we could all eat 6-9 cups of plant food a day (from a variety of 3 categories) we’d be better off. Some of us don’t or can’t without shifting to entirely plant-based food.
We’re choosing plants for different reasons. Spirituality, animal cruelty, and a fear of health risks are a few. But underlying reasons for plant-based nutrition for many is a desire for weight loss. The motivation to seek change was weight loss. The motivation to stay on it is weight loss. That’s dangerous. Just like an Atkins or Keto diet isn’t good for many people long term, choosing veganism for weight loss purposes without giving attention to collective micronutrient need leaves room to wonder about overall health goals.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
If you believe RDAs you believe it’s 10-35% of your total diet. That diet is based on a calorie allotment for the day. That’s a broad range, 10-35%.
But not all proteins are the same.
Essential amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. Though you can find all the essential amino acids in plant foods, you can’t find them in the optimal distributions. Leucine, for example, is key in the muscle maintenance process. If you’re an adult near or beyond 50 who hasn’t been doing resistance training and or been particularly conscientious about protein intake chances your lean muscle mass is below where it could be.
If you believe research widely published since 2008, much of which was done on older adults, the recommended amount of protein is per meal. The most important concept is the amount of essential amino acids (EAA). Consuming 20-30 grams of protein (higher in the range for sedentary individuals) is the equivalent of about 14 grams EAA. All essential amino acids are not created equal. Leucine is a key EAA that needs to be present to prevent muscle loss. It’s hard to find leucine in the amount required (about 2.3 per meal) in plant-only meals.
Muscle leaves clues to the quality and quantity of protein intake. Muscle loss prevention has been linked to protein consumption levels at 20-30 grams of protein at each of three meals.(With no adverse side-effects reported: though anyone with renal disease should consult a physician). For older adults there’s proof that an even higher level of protein intake, particularly around exercise can offer significant gains in muscle. Protein for muscle loss prevention becomes increasingly important – or it has. What if we didn’t skid into older adulthood having lost muscle?
It’s a choice.
I felt great, too. For about two months on a vegan diet. I did accomplishing the 20-30 gram per meal goal. The problem with doing so was twofold, the quality of what I was “counting” as grams of protein included things like bean chips. I was consuming a lot of the same foods over and over again. Beans, and quinoa, and during that time, some soy products made up the staples. Realizing soy was not a girl’s best friend, when I eliminated it I nearly had to have beans daily. Plant protein shakes supported my meals.
If you’re not vegan and are unfamiliar with the diet, let me clarify that there are no eggs, no yogurt, and no whey protein. When you realize not all “plant” foods are created equal – soy for instance – it becomes a major challenge to not consume a lot of nuts, nut butter, beans, and quinoa over and over.
Having a “plant-based” diet is not as simple as just eating plants. Not if you’re going to remain healthy. A concern is that consumption of the same foods over and over again leads to food sensitivity and gut issues.
Whether you believe you just need “some protein” or you follow research suggesting that muscle loss with age is directly correlated to:
- Strength training properly
- Protein type and timing
And the least of those is age. In the past, it was accepted that muscle loss, strength and stamina losses were a natural part of the aging process. We now know that muscle loss is related to inactivity, and insufficient calories and specifically protein.
Why is Muscle Mass Important Now?
Body composition is one of the biggest reasons muscle mass matters to you during peri-menopause and those years just after. There’s a strong chance that you’re going to notice dissatisfaction with your shape and tone first. We don’t necessarily have urgency about our health longevity at 50 as we do at 70.
We’re still toying with the idea of bathing suits and shorts we’ve not given up looking great in. At 70 we may still be there (let’s hope) but we’ve potentially also lost parents and watched a decline that may have included weakness, falls, injury or illness resulting in bed rest. Those things had the potential to spiral quickly into less activity and more weakness.
By 50 you could have lost a significant amount of muscle mass (.5 pounds a year starting at about age 30) by the time we’re 50. Let’s say that’s at worst. Your losses may not have been so noticeable. It’s potentially just that your clothes aren’t fitting the way you’d like them to or you’re noticing a softness that didn’t used to describe you.
Why is Muscle Mass Important Later?
Losses that occur over time lead to what might seem minute muscle loss you don’t feel. You may simply have that additional fat weight as you age. You may on the other hand appear frail.
If you have the misfortune of a health risk that puts you at bed rest or requires you to be less active for a period of time, your muscle loss will accelerate. It’s inevitable. The less you have in the bank the more quickly noticeable losses will occur.
When bed rest happens in your teens, you’re weak for a few days and then you’re back to running laps around the track or playing ball for hours. When it happens at 50 you may take months or a year to feel fully yourself. At 70, you may not get back that high energy you.
The stronger you are if you have to do down, the faster you’ll get back up.
Looking good and feeling good are big motivators for changing behavior. A weight lifting program that is only about cosmetic results won’t necessarily keep you from injury. Form follows function, however. If you are doing the things that make you healthy for now and for your future, you will also reap the rewards of loving the clothes on your body as much as you did putting them in the closet.
Protein muscle longevity: they go together, they’re not separate.
The right strength training requires muscle. Muscles require protein for building blocks. Your body can’t make protein out of thin air. You’ve got to give it a full profile of essential amino acids to build muscle.
If you’re not doing resistance training, you don’t need protein less. Your need for protein is increased if you’re more sedentary.
What about vegan strength trained athletes? What about vegan or plant-based long distance athletes?
Clearly the body can adapt. They’ve proven it. For now.
Body composition doesn’t lie.
This isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s not a plant or animal protein battle. It’s just a matter of health, quality of life now and later.
Someone recently said, “I know you’re a proponent of protein.”
More accurately, I’m a proponent of muscle and sparing muscle loss.
The way I’ve been able to do it for myself and for thousands of clients is a combination of two pillars: the right type and timing of strength training and protein intake. Those supported with some specific daily habits have increased lean and decreased body fat in adults 20-90 during my 34 years. The methods I use have been skewed toward animal protein since 2008 but not without testing a vegan lifestyle in 2013 for three months.
Like hormone balance would be the goal, and bio-identical hormones are simply an option, muscle mass maintenance/gain is the goal and animal protein or plant-based diets are both options.
The question returns to how much protein do you need?
Research suggests and most recently even more clinical dietitians are finally on board with recommending a user-friendly 20-30 grams of protein per meal target.
The secondary question is, does the quality of your protein reach the goals for the research establishing these recommendations.
One Last Thought
There are individuals who raise children on plants I suppose. I don’t know any. If we agree animal protein is something important at the beginning of the lifespan for development of muscle, why would we shift to thinking at the opposite end of the lifespan when we’re losing muscle easier (since it peaks at age 25), our needs should change? The protein for muscle debate isn’t likely to end any time soon. It’s good to be a critical thinker and assess what’s working for you and what’s not.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have them for you. I am looking forward to your comments and respect all opinions, especially those based on long term trial of a lifestyle way of eating.
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