Just how much protein do you need? How much will help you stop losing muscle and maintain a healthy, active life, loving the body you live in? Protein needs are a murky topic for most adults. About 90% of us know we need more. About 80% admit we don’t know what the actual number is.
You’re lifting weights, watching what you eat, and still you’re not seeing results. Yes, it could be your hormones. Growth hormone, testosterone, and glucagon optimization could help. Cortisol, and insulin optimization could help. But before you dive into the hormone-exercise connection, one question. Are you doing all you can in the kitchen to get muscle building blocks for a fast track to metabolism bliss? This post explores why that’s so hard, yet so important not to jump to any one singular answer.
Yes, you need to exercise, strength training properly, specifically. Yes, you need to avoid types of exercise that contribute to muscle loss. Yes, you need to have adequate quality and quantity of both calories and of protein. You need, essentially, the essential components of the After 50 Fitness Formula For Women. No one of them alone will help. Doing them will help balance hormones naturally. Then getting hormones balanced by choosing the best plan for you may help your already-good habits. Let’s take the deeper look at your sexy, sleek, strong, 50s, 60s, and beyond protein plan.
It’s confusing to pinpoint your protein needs based on the current recommendations and guidelines. Add to that, research since 2008 that’s not as in the public eye, your local dietitian’s suggestion, and the latest article suggesting “high protein foods” without any quantification, and you’ve got a hot mess. Your protein needs are also, as you’ll read here, non-intuitive.
Here’s why reaching your protein need is important. Since you turned 30, unless you were 1. Strength training 2. Eating adequate calories 3. Eating adequate nutrition 4. Truly recovering between workouts, you have been losing muscle. The average of us (and no! I’m not suggesting you’re average) loses 0.5 pounds of lean muscle tissue a year. If only fat loss were that easy, right? The opposite is true about fat, however. If you lose muscle you lose metabolism, and if you slow that metabolism you are much more likely to gain fat over the long run. You may weigh the same as you did when you were 30, but if you’ve not been strength training, you likely don’t wear the same size or feel the same energy level. You in fact, have increased your percent fat due to a loss of muscle even if you haven’t gained a pound. Sounds bleak.
Let’s start with the current guidelines. Let me just say first that anything associated with the government takes time, a lot of time, to establish and then to change. As an example, after a committee deliberated for years about changing dietary guidelines most recently, the results revealed a disappointing lack of any significant change. The hype around the announcement was far greater than any impact of the changes themselves.
Protein Intake Confusion
There is a drastic difference in Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) and Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) recommendations. The AMDR, is based on the percentages of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) we’ve gotten used to seeing since junior high or perhaps in your Nutrition 101 course in college. It’s still what many nutrition apps are based on.
Years, decades actually, ago the guidelines were set to prevent illness. The amounts were based on the minimal dietary strategy to prevent disease. That is a far cry from the optimal dietary strategy to provide vitality and health. Do you agree?
The AMDR for protein at 10–35% of energy coming from protein is a concept that is more in line with an optimal rather than a minimal dietary strategy. That is, if you want to have strength, stamina, and stay lean-looking you want to shoot for the upper range. Hold the phone, however.
Compare of the protein requirement (RDA) of a 55-year-old man who is 1.80 m, weighing 80 kg, at 64 g protein/day versus the range of protein intakes from the AMDR of 65–228 g protein/day (assuming an energy requirement of 2,600 kcal/day or 10.9 MJ/day) reveals quite a difference in recommendation. [This is based on the 0.8 g protein/kg of body weight RDA recommendation.]
Now let’s shift that to 1.2g/kg/day, which much of the emerging research is recommending. That would be 96 grams of protein. Few older adults are getting 96 g protein/day. But here’s the even more interesting thing. This falls in alignment with user-friendly recommendations by researchers for 20-30 grams high quality protein per meal. It’s easier to read a label and add protein grams in your meal. In fact, once you’ve done it for a week or two you become easily adapted to simply knowing at a glance that your 4-6 oz chicken breast or salmon has about 25-30 grams and your quinoa and black bean servings have about 6 grams each. You just have to do math from there.
In reference to the range of 20-30 grams, it’s not so much a personal choice as based on your need. The less active, the higher in the range you should be, the more active, the less you need. Sounds backwards, right? This is the non-intuitive part. Keep reading.
The Impact of protein intake on lean body mass (LBM)
At least 25% of older men, and up to 50% of older women, are not consuming the protein RDA let alone a protein intake of 1.2 g/kg/day that is more closely related to upper range of AMDR recommendations.
Because of that loss of muscle discussed earlier that happens all too easily without optimized weight training and dietary habits this gets serious after even a decade. It’s no wonder why many women find in their mid 50s or earlier that fat is winning the game.
What about collagen?
Collagen is good for your skin, joints, and gut. For muscle, however, it needs to contain non-essential amino acids to be truly beneficial. Tryptophan and leucine, specifically, are important.
Leucine is muscle gold
Leucine is a “trigger” for Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS). MPS decreases with age, and is decreased the more sedentary you are, so for the oldest, frailest of adults, protein intake becomes more important, not less than for that of a young active adult.
The research suggests that higher protein/leucine ratios to activate MPS and stimulate retention of muscle could be achieved with lower protein intakes if higher leucine-containing protein were consumed. That means, choose your protein sources carefully and less is more, or at least, enough.
Eggs and chicken are some of the highest leucine-containing animal sources. Whey isolate is one of the highest leucine-containing protein supplements, followed by whey concentrate. Pea protein is quite a ways below that. Choose wisely to meet your protein needs.
A twice daily dietary supplement for 13 weeks containing whey protein, leucine, and vitamin D (20 g whey protein, 3 g total leucine, and 800 IU vitamin D) was given to older (~78 years) primarily independent-living sarcopenic adults and resulted in improved chair–stand test time and showed a greater gain in skeletal muscle mass than the control group (and these results were repeated in other studies).
Best “High quality” sources of Animal and Plant protein
- Whey protein isolate (in those that tolerate dairy)
- Chicken breast
- Chic peas
*This, by no means an all-inclusive list, provides a few of the highest leucine-containing protein sources. Additional plant sources fall off dramatically.
I can testify that after 3 months testing a vegan diet I lacked the same strength, stamina, and endurance though my methods and progression of training had not increased. Visibly I was asked if I had lost weight and indeed I had lost several percentage of lean muscle. I had not supplemented with additional essential amino acids (EAA) and were I to repeat the experiment, I would do this.
Flipping 50 protein needs point #1
The amino acid leucine is a key in terms of triggering a rise in MPS, and so its content in proteins would be worth considering when evaluating proteins for their ability to support retention of muscle mass. Older persons appear to require higher intakes of leucine to stimulate MPS than younger persons. If you’re consuming protein that is low in leucine in attempt to maintain, or gain, lean muscle you may be shooting blanks.
Flipping 50 protein needs point #2
Higher per-meal protein intakes are associated with improved muscle mass and function. What’s important is that protein needs are based per-meal, not percentages or totals of a day. This makes it so much easier to reach your lean muscle maintenance/fat burning goals by looking at each meal. By simply asking, do I have enough protein here? And, is the source of protein high enough in leucine?
The concern over high protein intake
The first concern about protein intake is often any health danger from what feels like “high” protein diet. Let’s just be clear that in fact what many older adults and women in particular have been eating is a low protein diet, so it may be perception not reality of high protein. There is no bona fide evidence linking dietary protein to the actual development of renal disease. If you have a preexisting renal disease you are advised to manage their protein intake and dietary acid load in accordance with current guidelines and your health care provider.
After all that: missing protein needs point?
The negated, but oh-so important, last consideration here is emotions. You and I have emotions and long-standing beliefs about our food and our habits that we don’t like judged. We don’t like them to be challenged even if we ourselves are doing the challenging. So while you may nod at the research, and more easily at the confusing recommendations out there, filling your plate or bowl in a different way will potentially take time.
One bite at a time.