Senior Nutrition: Why Adding Protein to Your Diet is Important

As we age we lose muscle and strength, a medical term known as sarcopenia. As our muscles get smaller, we become weaker. The loss of strength is consistent with a loss of mobility and independence. The quality and quantity of daily consumption of protein are important in slowing this progression. Here’s why and how.

What amount of protein do I need?

The most recent Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein for men and women 19 years of age and older is 0.8 gram per kilogram (gm/Kg) of body weight. However, newer research shows that healthy adults age 65 and older need higher amounts of protein between 1.0 and 1.2 gm/kg a day. Those with sarcopenia may need upwards of 1.2 to 1.5gm/kg a day.

To figure out how much protein you need, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.45 to get your weight in Kg. Then multiply your weight in Kg by 1.2 (or higher with sarcopenia) to reach the recommended grams of protein per day.

What type of protein do I need?

Dietary protein is made up of many types of amino acids, one of which, leucine, has been shown to preserve muscle tissue. Soy beans and animal foods such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products contain the highest amounts of leucine. Lesser amounts of leucine can be found in other beans, nuts and seeds.

What are high protein foods?

  • Milk Products: Add cheese to toast, crackers, sandwiches, baked potatoes, vegetables, soups, noodles, meat, and fruit. Use milk in place of water when cooking cereal and creamed soups. Add powdered milk to cream soups and mashed potatoes. Add cottage cheese to salad, soup and fruit. Try yogurt blended into a milk shake.
  • Eggs: Add hard-cooked eggs to salads, casseroles, soups, and vegetables. Make a quick egg-salad. Make sure eggs are well cooked to avoid risk of harmful bacteria
  • Meats, Poultry, Fish: Add leftover cooked meats to soups, casseroles, salads, and omelets. Make dip by mixing diced, chopped, or shredded meat with sour cream and spices.
  • Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds: Sprinkle nuts and seeds on cereals, fruit, and desserts such as ice cream, pudding, and custard. Serve nuts and seeds on vegetables, salads, and pasta. Spread peanut butter on toast, bread, English muffins, and fruit, or blend it in a milk shake. Add beans and peas to salads, soups, casseroles, and vegetable dishes.

How can I increase my daily consumption of dietary protein?

  • If you appetite isn’t as good as it used to be, or if you get full quickly, have smaller meals and snacks that have protein. Eat protein first, and eat processed carbs last (if at all).
  • Try liquid protein supplements such as Ensure or Boost, or make your own with whey or soy protein powders mixed into milk, soymilk or almond milk. Try a health food store if your supermarket does not carry these products.

Monitor your body weight on a regular basis and ensure good fluid intake to support hydration needs.

You’re not too old to be active. Talk to you doctor about physical activity. Light or moderate physical activity can help maintain muscle.

Alexandra Small, RD, is a clinical dietician at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

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