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If you want to stay active, vital and strong as you age, good nutrition — with a healthy dose of protein — is key. Now, new evidence shows that older adults need more dietary protein than younger adults in order to preserve lean muscle and prevent age-related declines in health.

Sometime in our 30s we start losing muscle unless we make a point of halting that trend by staying physically active and including enough protein-rich foods in our diets.

Getting enough protein

“Our muscles are in a constant state of turnover,” says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I like to use the analogy that your muscle is like a brick wall. If bricks go in faster than they are taken out, the wall gets bigger and that’s what happens when we grow as kids. When bricks get taken out faster than they get put in, the wall gets smaller and that’s what happens when we age.”

Those bricks are amino acids, which form proteins. To have enough bricks we need to eat enough protein, and research suggests that the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may not be enough.

But a more optimal daily intake for older adults is at least 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram, Phillips said

Protein timing matters

One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds, so an older adult who weighs 150 pounds may need 68 to 82 grams of protein per day. But there’s more to getting “enough” protein than just hitting a daily target. Research shows that timing matters, because your body is constantly making and breaking down muscle, so there are benefits to encouraging muscle growth at each meal.

Tips for optimizing your protein intake:

Aim for at least 25 grams to 30 grams of protein per meal. This maximizes your body’s muscle repair and building machinery.

Adding Greek yogurt, eggs, tofu, nuts or seeds to a breakfast of high-fiber cereal can give you the benefits of both fiber and protein.

Vary your protein. Plant proteins should have a place at the table along with low-fat dairy, eggs and other animal proteins.

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