Good nutrition + adequate protein helps older adults stay active
A healthy diet includes all the food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein-rich foods, grain and dairy. Eating a variety of foods from every food group is essential for healthy aging, but one nutrient—protein—is particularly important. Experts in protein and aging agree that older adults need more protein to age well and are hopeful the 2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans will include a focus on older adult nutrition and protein.
Proteins are found throughout the body, building up and repairing hair, skin, muscles and almost every tissue. They are critical for the body to function, supporting immunity and making up enzymes to power chemical reactions while also providing the structure for hemoglobin that carries oxygen throughout the body. Proteins are built from hundreds—or sometimes thousands—of smaller units called amino acids. Nine of these amino acids are essential, which means the body can’t make them so they must come from the diet.
Why older adults need more protein
All adults require more protein as they age to preserve muscle mass. Studies have documented that muscle mass decreases about 3% to 8% per decade after the age of 30 and decreases at an even faster rate after the age of 60. Muscle loss goes hand in hand with diminished strength, stability and balance, all of which can put older adults at an increased risk for falls. Losing muscle can also cause a decrease in bone density, an increase in joint stiffness and an increase in fat mass and obesity.
Older adults who consume more protein are less likely to lose mobility and other bodily functions and are thus able to continue to remain active. Research has also shown that eating sufficient protein can help protect against risk of falls. Low protein intake of any type is also associated with a small increase in risk of death among older men.
Older adults need even more protein when they have a chronic disease, illness, inflammation or weight loss. All of these conditions stress the body and can result in less efficient use of protein in the diet.
Meeting protein goals
The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein for healthy adults 19 and older is 0.8 g/kg/day, and the recommendations are not tailored to different age groups. Yet experts agree that older adults’ protein needs are closer to 1–1.2g/kg/day. Unfortunately, many older adults are not even reaching the lower levels of protein recommended for adults in general. One investigation found up to 46% of the oldest adults studied did not consume enough protein on a regular basis and those who fell below the recommended protein intakes had significantly more functional limitations. As many as a third of older adults don’t eat enough protein because of reduced appetite, dental issues, impaired taste and smell, swallowing and gastric changes and limited financial resources.
What does it take to reach current protein goals (0.8 g/kg/day)? The average 195-pound man needs 71g/day, and the average 166-pound woman needs 60g/day.
How does protein fit into a healthy diet?
Eating about 25–30 grams of protein per meal stimulates maximum muscle protein synthesis in adults. To meet this level, older adults need to include protein rich foods at every meal. Many food groups contain protein-rich foods. Animal sources of protein (meats, seafood, dairy) provide the highest-quality protein and adequate amounts of essential amino acids.
Plants can provide protein too but differ in nutritional quality. One ounce of nuts contains 5–7 grams of protein, depending on the variety. Soybeans, beans, lentils and other legumes are good sources of protein, too, providing 15–30 grams of protein per cooked cup. Other vegetables with protein include green peas (about 9 grams of protein per cooked cup) and broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts (which typically contain 4–5 grams of protein in each cooked cup).
Suggestions for increasing protein include topping salads with lean meats, beans, nuts or tofu or sprinkling nutritional yeast over snacks like popcorn. Breakfast foods are often low in protein, so adding protein powder to morning oatmeal or adding eggs to toast can boost the protein factor.
Although there are plenty of ways to include protein-rich foods in the diet, oral nutrition supplements are also an excellent source of protein that require no preparation. They can be added to meals or taken between meals for extra protein.
It’s never too late to start
Getting enough protein in the diet can help maintain strength, stamina and energy. To support active aging, combine eating enough protein with activity—specifically resistance exercises like lifting weights or push-ups. The combination of a protein-rich diet and activity can help build muscles and prevent muscle loss, even during weight loss.
For more resources on protein and older adults, including education courses, podcasts, videosand infographics, visit the Abbott Nutrition Health Institute.