For the first time in human history, within the next four years, the number of people 65 and older is expected to surpass those 5 and younger. By 2030, it is estimated that there will be more than 1 billion older adults in the global population. Thus, it is important to examine scientifically proven methods to extend quality of life, support good health, promote recovery from illness, and maintain functional independence in this rapidly expanding geriatric population. This post and upcoming webinar, "Challenges for providing protein for the aging to support nutrition & health needs," will focus on the unique challenges that older adults face in meeting their protein requirements to maintain muscle mass and independence.
What are the unique needs of older adults in terms of protein? Do they require more protein? What about protein distribution throughout the day?
Protein, the building block for muscle, is the only macronutrient that does not have an inactive compound to serve as a reservoir. Thus, dietary amino acids need to be consumed daily to prevent muscle wasting and to maintain skeletal muscle mass and function. Much research has suggested that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is inadequate to promote optimal health in older adults. Mounting evidence indicates that older adults should consume 1.0-1.2 g protein/kg body weight/day; even higher protein consumption is recommended for those with an illness or injury. Research suggests that dietary protein that is spread evenly throughout three main meals of the day maximally stimulates muscle protein synthesis to prevent muscle loss with aging. Adequate protein intake is essential to retaining muscle mass, which is fundamental to promoting health and independence with age.
How much protein do older adults actually consume? Do older adults face any unique challenges that limit the amount, type or timing of protein consumed?
Studies show that in older adults, 12 percent of men and 24 percent of women eat significantly less protein than recommended. Reasons for the decrease in protein consumption are multifaceted. Older adult's appetite often changes due to a decrease in metabolism, changes in taste and smell, and slower digestion rates. Aging also leads to oral health decline and a reduced ability to swallow. Additionally, older adults face decreases in independence making it more difficult to shop for food, open jars, and prepare meals. So while we know that it is important and recommended that older adults consume more protein than younger adults, many are actually consuming less protein.
How can we help older adults meet the recommended protein intakes? How much food would an older adult have to consume to meet the RDA?
To meet the recent evidence-based recommendation of 1.0 g protein/kg body weight/day, an older adult weighing 150 pounds would need to consume 68 grams of protein each day. Spread out evenly over the day, that would be approximately 23 grams of protein per meal. Using protein in common foods, it is easy to see how protein could be added to each meal.
- For breakfast: eggs (1 egg = 6 g), cooked oats (.5 cup = 3 g), milk (1 cup = 8 g.; 1 cup soymilk = 7 g), low-fat plain yogurt (6 oz. single serving = 9 g; Greek 5.3 oz. single serving = 15 g).
- For lunch and dinner: soy or peanut butter (1 tablespoon = 4 g), most meat or fish (3 oz. serving = 21 g), almonds (1 oz. = 6 grams), quinoa (.5 cup = 4 grams), edamame (.5 cup = 11 g), cooked kidney beans (.5 cup = 8 g).
Older adults face many challenges in meeting their protein requirements; however, high protein foods can easily be added to each meal to help meet their protein goals. The upcoming webinar will focus on recent research findings to extend and improve the quality of life in older adults and will highlight the health implications of protein dietary interventions.
Rachel R. Deer, PhD is a research fellow at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX. She is also an associate scholar of the Claude D. Pepper OAIC in the Sealy Center on Aging at UTMB. Currently, she is overseeing four studies on the Acute Care for Elders Unit at Jennie Sealy Hospital. In this role she manages clinical trials using intervention strategies to accelerate recovery and improve health outcomes among older hospitalized patients. She is also interested in determining the prevalence and role of malnutrition and sarcopenia during hospitalization in geriatric patients.