Protein Intake Critical to Aging Bodies

By Shellie L. Rosen, Ph.D., Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM)®, DOM, L.Ac.

Understanding the roles of protein and exercise in longevity can help you build muscle, increase energy, stabilize blood sugar, and improve overall health. Our bodies can burn or store carbohydrates and fats as fuel, but protein is not “stored.”

We must consume protein routinely to meet the consistent demands of the body. If protein is unavailable in the diet, skeletal muscle breaks down to provide necessary amino acids. Muscle weakness leads to inactivity, which leads to further muscle loss.

Mortality risk is directly associated with insufficient intake of protein and decreased activity. Both adequate protein and consistent exercise are necessary to prevent the loss of skeletal muscle. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound), but this number does not address complexities as we age.

Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, researches muscle protein turnover in exercise and nutrition. In his study of protein synthesis, Phillips found that some individuals require more protein than current recommendations advise and that factors such as activity level and age can contribute to a reduction in skeletal muscle when our protein intake falls short.

Findings learned from studying patients in critical care illustrate the catastrophic loss of skeletal muscle that occurs from a lack of physical activity. Decreased activity causes inflammation, as well as insulin resistance and anabolic resistance. Anabolic resistance is when muscles do not respond to protein efficiently, requiring more protein.

The Journal, Current Opinion in Critical Care (2018) states that “older individuals should perform exercise using both heavy and light loads three times per week, ingest at least 1.2 g of protein/kg/day, evenly distribute their meals into protein boluses of 0.40 g/kg, and consume protein within 2 h of retiring for sleep.”

To better understand the build-up and decline of skeletal muscle mass throughout the life cycle, look at the April 2023 Journal of Nutrition Reviews article, “Age-related muscle anabolic resistance: inevitable or preventable?” The authors detail the rationale for increased protein needs based up on age and health, with the only caveat being that those with pre-existing kidney disease use caution with higher protein consumption. The authors mention that protein requirements to retain or grow muscle are about 50 percent to 60 percent more than a senior population typically consumes. The review calls attention to the dangers of the widespread skeletal muscle loss within older populations and potential pathways for prevention, including a combination of exercise and sufficient protein dosing throughout the day.

As we age, we must fiercely protect our skeletal muscles. Based on your needs, consider how much protein you require. Periods of inactivity immediately affect muscle mass, which is directly associated with an increased risk of injury. We often have no idea that our coordination, balance, and strength issues are symptoms of skeletal muscle decline.

It is never too late to build back muscle. Protein and movement snacks throughout the day are a solution. Eat protein and immediately dance, walk, take an exercise class, or follow a workout video. Find some weight-bearing or resistance exercises online. If you are consuming fewer calories for weight loss, avoid restricting your protein intake. Plan your protein and exercise snacks to preserve your precious muscle every day.

Abundant blessings!

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