Protein for the 60-something or older crowd

Sometimes it takes disconcerting news at a doctor’s clinic to look in the mirror and evaluate life. For me, it’s birthdays. Maybe all that candlelight inspires reflection.

 

Multigenerational family hiking in the woodsMore than the January 1 date, I think of my birthday as the start of a fresh new year. The last one reminded me that my aging body could benefit from some additional tuning. Or is it toning? Both, actually. I’m a dietitian, so I started with what I know. What could I do to improve my diet? Maybe switch to more organic foods? Become more informed about the carbon footprint of what reaches my kitchen and my family’s plates? Yes, there’s room for improvement there. Will I look like more vibrant and alive if I do a juice cleanse? Eat more fruits? I decided that for me, an over-60 female, the biggest benefit could be gained by tweaking my protein intake. Based on how older adults eat, I am not alone in having a less-than-adequate strength-building breakfast.

 

On average, adults in the United States consume plenty of protein to build and repair body tissues, and that includes keeping the heart pumping, muscles lifting, and wounds healing. Researchers are suggesting that slightly higher protein intake is needed to balance a loss of resilience that accompanies aging. Furthermore, they have found that humans have limits on how much protein they can convert into tissue building amino acids at any one time. Our culture’s eating pattern of light breakfast, lunch on the run, and a big meal at supper means that we convert a lot of protein into sugars and fat for energy. It seems that the typical upper limit of protein that can be used as building blocks for muscle and tissue maintenance and repair is around 30 grams. Having a bigger piece of chicken or a bigger burger is a waste of protein (nutritionally speaking…yes, I know - we eat for many other reasons than ultimate health, but bear with me, we’re talking health resolutions here).

 

Protein is most effective when distributed evenly throughout the day. In researcher language, we benefit most “when protein is consumed in 3-4 isonitrogenous meals,” nitrogen being the key to protein metabolism. I have no trouble finding good protein sources at lunch or supper, but the big question for me, as for many other older adults, is: how do I get enough protein into my breakfast?

 

Here are steps to planning a few breakfasts that help me maintain muscle and avoid breaks and bruises, not to mention keeping up with my younger friends when we walk!

 

Step 1: What are the protein recommendations for older adults?

 

Bowl of yogurt with fruitThe US dietary recommendations for protein are 0.8 grams /kilogram (or 0.36 gm/pound) body weight for anyone over age 18 (not pregnant or lactating). Special circumstances requiring higher protein intakes are illness, recovering from burns, training for athletic events and consuming a calorie-restricted diet. Protein recommendations in those circumstances are individually tailored, often up to 2 gm protein/kg. But for these breakfast calculations, we are looking at healthy adults who might define their athletic activities as “recreational.”

 

Researchers are finding that adults aged 65 and older do better with 1 gram of protein per kilogram body weight (0.45 gm protein per pound body weight). This helps them maintain nitrogen balance, accommodating aging metabolism. (Nitrogen balance means not breaking down muscle, heart, and kidney tissues to serve as amino acid sources for ongoing protein functions like replacing blood and skin cells.) Recommended protein amounts are based on current body weight, and are the same for men and women, even though men tend to have more muscle than women. Table 1 below shows daily protein requirements for adults 65 and older, at 1 gm protein/kg body weight (0.45 gm protein/pound).

 

Table 1: How much is enough? 

Weight in pounds

Weight in kg

Grams protein/day

Divide by 3: grams of protein per meal

100

45

45

15

120

54.5

54 18

150

68 68 23

220

100 100 33

 

Step 2: Translate your weight into kilograms and divide by 3-4 meals (“eating occasions”).

 

For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds weighs 68 kilograms (150 lb divided by 2.2 lb/kg= kg). Assuming they want to eat 3 times per day, they should distribute those 68 grams into 3 nearly equal portions. That comes out to 22.67 grams per eating occasion, which is appears to be much more precise than this whole recommendations process is. So let’s say 20-25 grams for each of 3 eating occasions will keep this older 150-pounder from burning up their non-fat tissue in the processes of tissue repair and maintenance.

 

Step 3: Choose breakfasts that will supply needed protein. Because I grew up with savory as well as sweet breakfasts, I’m including a few fish choices that could add variety to my mornings. I’m including calories in this table because…well, you know…

 

Bowl of oatmeal with strawberries and blueberriesNuts and seeds nutrients are listed per ounce (28.5 grams). There is too much shape and size variation (sliced, slivered, chopped, halves, pieces, whole, etc ) in the nut food group to give precise protein information for household measures. A gram scale would be a great kitchen investment for other things besides weighing nuts and seeds. More and more recipes are listing ingredient weights along with cup/tablespoon/teaspoon measures for accuracy and ease. No scale? On average, an ounce of nuts measures about one-fourth cup (0.2 to 0.3 cups). In any case, the table below will help to provide some health-promoting breakfast options.

 

Table 2: Protein content of potential breakfast foods

Protein Source

Energy (kcal) Protein (grams)
CEREAL GRAIN, 1 CUP, COOKED IN WATER    

Spelt

247

10.6

Quinoa

226 8.7

Oatmeal, steel cut

202 7.0

Wild rice

166 6.5

Oatmeal, flakes

159 5.5

Barley

193 5.4

Rolled wheat

138 4.5

Rice (white)

205 4.2

Polenta/grits

177 3.7

Farina (cream of wheat)

122 3.5
NUTS & SEEDS, 1 OZ    

Peanuts, dry roasted, no salt

166 6.7

Almonds, raw

163 6.0

Sesame seeds

179 5.8

Sunflower seeds, shelled

165 5.5

Flax seeds

151 5.0

Chia seeds

138 4.7

Cashews

163 4.3

Walnuts

185 4.3

Pecans

196 2.6

Macadamia nuts

204 2.2
NUT BUTTERS, 2 TABLESPOONS    

Peanut butter

190 8.0

Almond butter

192 6.6

Tahini (sesame paste)

179 5.1
DAIRY, 1 CUP    

Greek yogurt, plain, 1-2% fat

188 25

Greek yogurt, plain, non-fat

146 25

Plain yogurt, 1-2% fat

154 13

Milk, 1% fat

102 8

Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce

108 8

Cheese, Cheddar, 1 ounce

114 7

Cream Cheese (2 tb = 1 ounce)

97 2
EGGS, FISH, 1 OZ    

Eggs, 1 large

78 6.3

Smoked trout

75 10

Sardine in oil, drained

59 7

Smoked salmon, lox

33 5

Pickled herring

74 4

 

 

Et cetera…more protein factoids:

 

Dish of scrambled eggs with salsaWhat is a gram of protein?  Much of the writing about protein refers to sources of protein that appear on your plate or in your cup.  A gram of protein (as it appears on food labels and in dietary recommendations) is not the same as a gram of chicken or egg or cheese, which are all good sources of protein.  A gram of protein refers to the weight of the combined total of essential and non-essential amino acids that are part of almost all foods.   Fruit contains little protein.  The most concentrated sources of proteins are found in dehydrated forms such as casein and whey powders, pea flour, dried milk and dried eggs.

 

Why eat Protein if I have all the muscle I want?   Cells turn over continuously, even bone cells.  So these tissues need adequate substrate for continuous replacement, repair, and maintenance. Processes that depend on protein include wound healing, maintaining functioning enzyme systems that support immune status, replacing lost skin cells, and strengthening muscles, including heart muscle that pumps blood to the brain.

 

Strawberry smoothieHow much additional protein is needed for intense exercise?  Beyond daily living levels, athletes in training are probably working with someone to calculate their unique sport’s best regimen and are eating from 1.3-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram per day, choosing the higher levels when restricting calories.  But in general, for continuing, strenuous activities, add 0.15gm protein/kg/hour of activity, along with 0.15 gm of carbohydrate/kg/hour:

  • Person weighing 120 pounds = 8 gm protein per hour
  • Person weighing 150 pounds = 10 gm protein per hour
  • Person weighing 200 pounds = 14 gm protein per hour

There is no set formula for the timing of consuming this added protein, either before, during, or after the workout.  Recommendations are to consume nutrients in proximity to the exercise (if after the workout, make it as soon after as feasible.

 

Plate with sardines and breadA better breakfast is a balancing act: adequate protein to promote muscle without too many calories, keeping costs within budget and being mindful of the carbon footprint, and varying foods  high sodium foods so blood  pressure doesn’t go overboard.   Choosing a variety of basic, real foods provides bonus nutrients besides protein: 

  • Energy from carbs and fat in foods protect protein as the source of building blocks
  • Walnuts, flax seeds and fish provide omega 3 fatty acids to build cell membranes and aid in blood clotting
  • Carbohydrate facilitates transfer of protein into muscle before and after exercise, nuts, milk, and yogurt provide carb as well as protein
  • Cooking cereal grains in milk enhances taste and increases protein - save time by making enough for a few days because milk scorches more quickly than water, requiring more attention – and stirring.
  • Orange smoothie provides bone- and collagen-building nutrients (vitamins A & C, calcium, magnesium, and protein)
  • Big cup of tea hydrates and provides antioxidants that facilitate the muscle repair process.  

 

—U. Beate Krinke, PhD, MPH, RD, LN