If you thought protein was just for body builders then think again! The real benefits of a higher protein diet have nothing to do with sculpting the perfect physique and focus on long term health and not superficial aesthetics.
Think of a high protein diet and the mind tends to jump to muscle-bound, bicep-kissing young men, flexing their physiques on Venice Beach. The explosion of ‘fitspiration’ images on social media where girls try to maximise the booty to waist ratio and guys aspire to develop a defined 8 pack, potentially at great cost to physical and mental health, has positioned protein as the nutrient of the body beautiful. Moreover, the recent explosion of protein products on the market, from Protein Mars bars to protein beer use the inherent health halo of protein to market every product under the sun to consumers. While a higher protein diet can certainly support muscle growth, weight loss and athletic performance, there’s a rather overlooked population group for whom a higher protein diet could be a vital component in healthy ageing.
What does protein actually do?
We use the protein we eat to support the growth and maintenance of our muscles and bones, as well as to make skin, hair, nails and vital components of our metabolism. Protein is an essential nutrient! But how much we need at different stages of our life is debated.
The role of protein in muscle health is critical for those who are looking to develop their muscle strength e.g. those involved in power sports; muscle endurance, such as distance athletes (cyclists, runners, triathletes and so on); and those looking to maintain their muscle. Muscle maintenance is critical for two population groups – the over 50s and those who are dieting.
We know that as we age (potentially from our 40s and beyond) we lose muscle mass and strength and this increases our risk of not only falls and frailty but also of some chronic diseases. Resistance exercise can help to mitigate these losses of muscle mass and strength, more so if we give our bodies sufficient protein.
When you’re eating fewer calories with the aim losing weight or body fat, eating a higher protein diet can help, for two reasons. Firstly, when you lose weight, you inevitably lose a mixture of body fat and muscle. Eating a higher protein diet, ideally combined with some resistance training, can help to reduce the loss of muscle when dieting. We want to hang onto as much of our muscle tissue as we can, as it helps to maintain the metabolic rate, which tends to fall when we lose weight, not because we go into “starvation mode” (if I had a pound for every time I’d heard that myth…) but because when you lose weight, there is literally less of you for your body to keep alive. Secondly, protein foods tend to keep you feeling fuller than foods high in carbohydrate or fat, so can make it easier to stick to a calorie-reduced diet without feeling quite so hungry. It won’t stop you wanting to demolish a bar of Dairy Milk because it’s delicious but it can help you feel less hungry!
So protein is important. But how much is enough?
How much protein do I need as I get older?
The Department of Health advises that all adults, regardless of age, need around 50g of protein a day. That can be found easily in a normal mixed diet, even a vegetarian or vegan diet. Arguably, though, this is only applicable if you are relatively inactive and are under the age of 50. Plenty of evidence supports eating more protein if you’re older, active or trying to lose weight. So let’s look at the numbers and what that means practically because the last thing anyone wants to do is carry a calculator and a set of scales around. Weighing food and adding up grams of protein is NOT my bag!
Older adults (50+)
Recent research suggests that older adults, aged 50 and above, should aim to eat 1-1.2g of protein per kilo body weight a day (compared with current Department of Health guidelines which are 0.8g/kg body weight/d). This is equivalent to 60-72g of protein a day if you weigh 60kg. Obviously, if you weigh more or less, you’ll need more or less protein.
So why the higher figure? Well, as we age, we simply become less efficient at building and restoring our muscles after eating protein foods. Quite frankly, I feel as if I’ve become less efficient at simple life tasks like getting up or remembering what I ate for lunch, so I can concur with this lack of effectiveness! But never fear, by eating a little bit more protein, we can help to combat our age-related inefficiency (I just wish protein would help improve my memory…)
For active individuals, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends that you need somewhere between 1.4-2g of protein per kilo body weight a day, spread in roughly equal doses throughout the day. If you do mostly endurance exercise, aim at the lower end of the range and if you’re more into resistance training then aim a bit higher. In practical terms, if you weigh 60kg then you should aim for 84-120g protein a day or up to 30-40g per meal, max, depending upon how many meals you eat.
If you’re looking to reduce body fat the ISSN recommends up to 3g protein per kilo body weight per day, alongside a reduced calorie plan, to improve feelings of fullness and preserve lean muscle and metabolic rate.
OK, so where do I find protein?
Meat, fish, dairy foods and eggs are great sources of protein and these animal-derived foods have been shown to deliver the highest protein quality. This means they contain all the essential protein components that the body needs (these components are known as amino acids, of which 9 are essential and cannot be made by the body so must be consumed as part of the diet). They’re also more digestible than plant-based protein sources.
Plant-based proteins can be found in beans, lentils, soya products like tofu and tempeh, nuts, seeds (quinoa is actually a seed and not a grain) and in small amounts in bread, pasta and other grains. With the exception of quinoa and soya, most plant based proteins do not individually provide all 9 essential amino acids. They are also less well digested than animal-derived proteins and so less of the protein they contain is available to help support muscle preservation or growth.
However, we know that plant-based foods are hugely nutritious and that eating a diet rich in plant-based foods is linked to many health benefits, as well as being more environmentally sustainable so it we certainly shouldn’t be ruling out plant-derived sources of protein. It’s just advisable that, if you’re eating a largely plant-based diet, and particularly if you’re vegan, you should try to eat a variety of sources of plant-based protein in each meal and maybe try to eat a little bit more than if you get much of your protein from animal sources.
Can I eat all my protein in one go?
In the same way that active individuals are advised to spread their protein intake evenly throughout the day, ideally, you’d aim to eat around 25-35g protein at each meal (although this will depend on your body weight and how many meals a day you eat). Typically, many of us will eat toast or cereal for breakfast, so we won’t get much in the way of protein. A lunch of soup or pasta is again, going to be relatively low in protein and it’s often not until the evening that we eat much in the way of any protein foods. This is less than ideal, although some studies suggest that when you eat your protein is less important than the total amount. However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really fancy eating at least 2 chicken breasts for dinner every day!
So what do I eat?
All this theory is great but what can you actually eat, without having to rely on a calculator? Here are some examples of foods that provide about 25-30g of protein, so would be ideal for part of a meal choice:
Remember, if you use a plant-based milk, make it soya as it’s the highest in protein. Other milk alternatives like almond or oat milk are 98% water and very low in protein.
When it comes to snacks, particularly if your breakfast has been a bit low in protein, here are some examples with 10g protein:
Should I take supplements?
There is nothing magic about protein powders, whether they are cows’ milk derived (whey protein) or plant-based (soy, quinoa, pea or rice protein). They simply provide an additional source of protein if you’re struggling to get enough in your diet through other foods. I always recommend adopting a food first approach and using supplements only for convenience or when needed.
Personally, I add whey protein to a berry, oat and flax seed smoothie in the morning, made with almond milk just because I like the taste. It is quick to make and drink and ensures I get a protein boost at breakfast when I don’t have time to cook eggs. Sometimes I use it after I’ve trained if I know I’m not going to eat a meal for a while after working out. It’s not essential but it helps give me a boost.
Ultimately, for midlife and older people, protein isn’t important for aesthetic reasons or for weight loss. It’s an essential component of our diet that we may need to eat a bit more of to help us stay mobile, active and strong into our older age.