10 April 2018Protein intake tips for older women from the new book "Food Wisdom for Women"

When it comes to aging, the popular food and health messages are all about disease:

  • Don't eat this food ever again or you'll get this disease!
  • Avoid this disease by eating this diet!
  • Cut back on that to reduce your risk for this other disease!

It's all about failing health and physical deterioration. We're all just disasters waiting to happen.

Is that your goal for aging - a life of disease avoidance? It's not my goal. I'd prefer to maximize health and quality of life. Thanks to my nutrition expertise, I can identify food, nutrition and diet information that's actionable, and put it to use. But what about everyone else? Without a nutrition background, how does the average person identify what's useful and what's Fake Nutrition?

When it comes to aging, there are large gaps in our knowledge of optimal nutrition for older adults. Most of the research on nutrient requirements was done years ago, using healthy, 20-something subjects. How exactly do those results apply to a 50-something woman? Unfortunately, when it comes to older adults, particularly women, those gaps in knowledge create the opportunity for less knowledgeable people to spread misinformation to sell products.

Why the lack of information? Life expectancy has increased by 30 years in the past century. We are a very large, and growing, segment of the population. In two short years, predictions show that there will be more people aged 65+ than under 5 years old. You would think science would try to keep up. But doing nutrition research on older people is tricky. For one thing few people would volunteer to be confined to a metabolic ward for a prolonged period of time and fed an experimental diet. For another, existing medical problems and prescription drug use would complicate results.

Despite these logistical problems, there is useful information for people who want to use nutrition and food to enhance quality of life as they age. If your goal for aging includes as much energy, health and vitality as possible, my new book "Food Wisdom for Women" is for you. It's not a book about avoiding diseases. It's about enhancing health.

In fact, I learned a lot while researching and writing this book. Here's one topic I feel is extremely important for older women and men: protein. I know protein is a popular focus of weight loss diets, but it may be especially important as we age for another reason: preservation of muscle mass. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass with age. This process can start in your 40's; by the time you reach your 70's, you could lose half your muscle mass! This is a huge potential problem, and contributes to many quality-of-life and health issues, such as loss of energy and strength, frailty and falling. You might think "Oh, I stay active, so that won't happen to me." Or "My weight hasn't changed, so I haven't lost muscle mass." Think again. Unless your protein intake is optimal, physical activity alone cannot prevent muscle loss. And typically, as a person gradually loses muscle, they gain fat tissue. You might weigh the same, but your percent body fat is higher. In some cases, this can result is what's called sarcopenic obesity: normal weight but high body fat associated with obesity.

Despite the growing body of knowledge about muscle loss associated with aging, official protein intake recommendations have not budged: 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight per day (0.36 grams/pound body weight). Meanwhile there's increasing evidence from studies on older people that higher protein recommendations might help. Some studies found improvement in muscle mass and strength with intakes between 1.2 and 1.6 grams/kg/day - combined with some strength training.

What does that mean in real life? The official protein requirement for a 50-something woman who weighs 140 lbs would be 51 grams/day. If she adhered to the higher recommendations, she would be eating from 75-100 grams/day. Furthermore, the studies show that protein is better utilized if intake is divided roughly evenly throughout the day. In other words, 25 grams at each of 3 meals, if she is consuming 75 grams of protein.

This means that loading up on protein just at the evening meal, as many of us are accustomed to doing, is not a good plan. Overeating protein at one meal doesn't make up for eating little at an earlier meal. For some people, breakfast is the biggest problem. Unless you regularly include high protein foods like eggs, milk, cheese or yogurt, you might not be getting much protein, let alone 25 grams. That's roughly the amount in 4 ounces of cooked meat or 4 eggs or 3 cups of milk. If you aren't going to eat that many eggs, one strategy is to have normal portions of high protein foods at breakfast, say 2 eggs, and then have a high protein morning snack. It also means breakfast shouldn't be just toast and juice or a pastry and coffee.

Of course, muscle mass does not just depend on loading up on more protein. Muscles maintain integrity or grow in response to use. So in addition to boosting protein intake, you need to stay active. Strength training and aerobic activity are both important. The unfortunate reality for older people is that inactivity quickly leads to loss of muscle mass and strength. And as we age, inactivity can be caused by plenty of life events, such as injury and illness, or bad weather that keeps people indoors. Then there are happier reasons: long trips or visits from friends or relatives that disrupt exercise routines. If you've ever returned from a long trip and gone back to the gym, only to realize you've lost fitness, muscle loss is one likely culprit.

"Food Wisdom for Women" has lots more information about protein and muscle maintenance for older women, as well as information about nutrition and eye health, cognition, digestive health, bone strength and other quality-of-life issues. One question I've gotten from readers: would it be helpful for older men? Yes absolutely. The chapter on menopause won't be that useful, but older men and women share most of the same health concerns that are impacted by food and nutrition.

Food Wisdom for Women is available on Amazon in print and Kindle format.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Feed Your Vegetarian Teen and Food Wisdom for Women: nutrition for aging with energy, vitality and health. Donna writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

Tags:

Nutrients/Protein Other Health Issues/Aging

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