Optimal Protein Intake for Fitness After 50

Optimizing resistance training is crucial for the aging athlete, but we can’t forget about optimizing nutrition, especially protein intake.

Why such an emphasis on protein?

Protein (along with sufficient overall caloric intake) is critical to maintain muscle mass and strength, especially as one ages. Unfortunately, up to 40% of older adults do not even consume the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of protein of 0.8 grams/kilogram bodyweight/day (1). Note that the RDA was originally created based on the needs of young men to merely prevent nutritional deficiency, not to promote optimal health, muscle mass, or strength. Further, older athletes need to manage protein intake more closely than younger athletes because of metabolic changes that promote “anabolic resistance”, which is a decreased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response to resistance exercise and/or protein consumption. Consuming protein and resistance exercise activate MPS , however with age that MPS response is decreased (1). Fortunately, if we engage in resistance exercise and eat sufficient, well-dosed amounts of protein, we can optimize MPS leading to better muscle mass and strength gains (2).

How Much Protein?

Most research points towards a protein range of 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day for optimal muscle mass and strength in the older adult (1). To track daily protein intake, there are many methods but my preferred is to use the Hand Measure System. This method uses the palm of your hand to roughly equate to 25 g of protein. For example, for a 70 kg woman, to hit 1.2 g/kg/day they would need to consume at least 84 g of protein per day—equating to about 3-4 palms of protein per day. As a side note, most protein powder supplements provide between 20-30 g of protein per serving.

How Often?

While the net amount of protein per day is most important, research indicates that consuming at least 25-30 g per meal maximizes the MPS, as opposed to a more uneven distribution (2). For example, consuming 15 g at breakfast then 15 g at lunch would lead to a lower MPS response as compared to consuming 30 g at breakfast.

Type of Protein?

As long as the total amount of protein is sufficient, the exact type is of little importance. Animal and plant proteins both support muscle mass and strength development, as long as total protein and energy intake are sufficient. For example, research in athletes comparing whey and plant based proteins has found no significant differences in muscle gain, strength development or psychometric measures like perceptions of soreness or readiness to train (3), (4).

So to sum up:

-For optimal muscle mass and strength, older adults should consume 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg bodyweight per day

-Servings of protein should ideally be consumed in doses of at least 25 grams per meal, spread throughout the day

-“1 palm size portion” of protein roughly equals 25 grams of protein

-Animal and plant proteins are effective, as long as one consumes a sufficient amount of protein

References:

  1. Baum JI, Kim IY, Wolfe RR. Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?. Nutrients. 2016;8(6):359. Published 2016 Jun 8. doi:10.3390/nu8060359
  2. Deer RR, Volpi E. Protein intake and muscle function in older adults. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2015;18(3):248-253. doi:10.1097/MCO.0000000000000162
  3. Joy JM, Lowery RP, Wilson JM, et al. The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutr J. 2013;12:86. Published 2013 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-86
  4. Banaszek A, Townsend JR, Bender D, Vantrease WC, Marshall AC, Johnson KD. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(1):12. Published 2019 Jan 4. doi:10.3390/sports7010012

*This information is provided solely as general educational and informational purposes. Always consult your physician or health care provider before undertaking any changes in diet or physical activity.

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