Are You Eating Enough Protein?

If you’re older than a certain age, there’s a good chance the answer is no.

Protein sources like red meat, lean chicken, lentils, beans

Medically reviewed in January 2022

Updated on May 11, 2022

Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines: Americans eat too much protein. But the truth is more complicated. The amount you need depends on many factors including your age, sex, and weight. And contrary to those headlines, some people may not be getting enough.

Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that average-sized men aged 19 and older eat 56 grams (g) of protein each day, while women should aim for 46 g. (This is based on the recommended daily dietary allowance of 0.36 g of protein per pound of body weight.)

Once you reach your 70s, getting enough protein can become a struggle. And that’s a problem, because according to many experts, you actually need more protein as you age.

Why protein needs change over time
An April 2019 study published in Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that one-third to one-half of Americans older than 50 did not eat the recommended amount of protein each day.

The researchers suggested that this could be the result of a variety of issues. The older people involved in the study reported skipping meals, which affected their overall daily protein intake. The study’s authors also noted that as people age, their appetite and energy requirements tend to decline. Financial, physical, and mental limitations; dental issues; and problems swallowing could also play a role.

Inadequate protein intake could take a toll on people’s health in several ways:

  • In the study, those who weren’t getting enough protein were also more likely to have lower intake of more than a dozen other nutrients.
  • When consumption of protein and other essential nutrients declines, the risks for osteoporosis, hip fractures, and even death increases.
  • Inadequate protein intake also contributes to sarcopenia, an age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and function, which can make even walking down the street more difficult.

Although government guidelines don’t specify a higher daily intake for people older than 65, numerous studies have found that 0.36 g per pound doesn’t cut it. 

In 2013, an international team of researchers suggested that older people actually need 0.45 to 0.54 g of protein per pound each day instead, along with two to three days of resistance-training exercise (the kind that strengthens muscles) each week. That’s on top of about 30 minutes of daily aerobic activity. For a person weighing 150 pounds, that works out to 68 to 81 g of protein a day.

Their recommendations, which were published in JAMDA, are based on the idea that older people need to consume more protein to maintain their strength and mobility, aid recovery from illness, and offset age-related changes in protein metabolism. The researchers noted, however, that people with severe kidney disease are an exception and should limit their protein intake as directed by their healthcare provider (HCP).

More isn’t necessarily better
The muscle loss that leads to sarcopenia starts years earlier. After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3 to 5 percent of your muscle mass per decade. Strength training can help slow and protect against sarcopenia, but age-related muscle loss is another good reason to pay attention to your protein intake as you get older.

Keep in mind, however, that eating more protein than is recommended isn’t necessarily better.

“There’s no benefit for anyone who’s generally healthy to eat excessive protein,” says New Jersey-based dietitian Mark Jakubicki, MS, RD. “I’ll see someone in a restaurant eating a 20-ounce steak. Nobody needs that.” As delicious as it may be, a jumbo portion of steak provides more than twice the amount of protein most of us need in an entire day.

Some athletes may be an exception to this rule. While training regularly and intensely, athletes should aim to get 0.54 to 0.91 g of daily protein per pound of body weight. If you’re a bodybuilder, you may need even more: 0.73 to 1 g per pound. Talk to your HCP about what level of protein intake is safe and appropriate for you.

How you get protein also matters
Some people may automatically associate protein with ribs and burgers. But eating excessive amounts of animal protein does bring some dangers.

For middle-aged people, excessive animal protein intake is associated with increased risks of cancer and diabetes. Red meat, for example, is higher in artery-clogging saturated fat than lean protein sources like fish or poultry. Red and processed meats have also been shown to increase the odds of developing heart disease. So save the marbled steak for special occasions and go for the salmon if you can. If you must have meat, go for a petite filet.

Choosing plant proteins like soy, nuts, or legumes over red and processed meat could help you reduce your intake of saturated fat and excess salt. Plant-based protein sources also provide other valuable nutrients, such as fiber, which offers myriad health benefits.

How to improve your protein balance
If red meat and other animal proteins are a regular part of your current diet, consider these tips to help you incorporate more plant-based proteins:

  • Until you get used to eating less meat, write down when and how much you’re eating. It will make it easy to spot patterns and opportunities for small shifts.
  • Think of restaurant dining as a chance to try new things. Order a stir-fry dish with tofu instead of meat next time you go for Chinese food, for example. Once you find something you like, add it to your repertoire at home.
  • Big fan of chili? Instead of going with an all-beef version, replace half of the meat with kidney, pinto, or black beans.
  • Top your salad with beans or nuts rather than meat.
  • Opt for a handful of nuts as a snack.
  • Swap protein-filled quinoa for white rice.
  • Have peanut butter on whole-wheat toast for breakfast instead of bacon.

If tackling a list of specific steps feels daunting, one option is to embrace an overall eating plan that encourages less animal protein.

“I’m a big advocate of the Mediterranean diet,” says Jakubicki. “Seafood twice a week, plenty of beans and nuts, and red meat only once or twice a month. Try to treat meat like a condiment, not the main course.”

Article sources open article sources

Iraki J, Fitschen P, Espinar S, Helms E. Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2019;7(7):154. Published 2019 Jun 26.
Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance [published correction appears in J Acad Nutr Diet. 2017 Jan;117(1):146]. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501-528.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. U.S. diets are out of balance with Federal recommendations. Updated Apr. 20, 2021.
Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013;14(8):542-559.
Krok-Schoen JL, Archdeacon Price A, Luo M, Kelly OJ, Taylor CA. Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES analysis. J Nutr Health Aging. 2019;23(4):338-347.
Naseeb MA, Volpe SL. Protein and exercise in the prevention of sarcopenia and aging. Nutr Res. 2017;40:1-20.
Harvard Health Publishing. Preserve your muscle mass. Feb. 19, 2016.
Levine ME, Suarez JA, Brandhorst S, et al. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metab. 2014;19(3):407-417.
Dieter BP, Tuttle KR. Dietary strategies for cardiovascular health. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2017;27(5):295-313.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source. Protein. Accessed Jan. 6, 2022.
Guasch-Ferré M, Satija A, Blondin SA, et al. Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials of Red Meat Consumption in Comparison With Various Comparison Diets on Cardiovascular Risk Factors. Circulation. 2019;139(15):1828-1845.
Reynolds A, Mann J, Cummings J, Winter N, Mete E, Te Morenga L. Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses [published correction appears in Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):406]. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):434-445.

 

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