As we get older – by which I mean, as we get to 30 and beyond – we begin to lose muscle mass. We can halt the decline by doing two things: working our muscles by doing resistance and weight-bearing exercise; and keeping our protein intake up to make sure that when we stress the muscles through training, our bodies are able to rebuild them, better and stronger than before.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we need protein shakes and bars after every workout. There’s protein to be had in regular food, and depending on the timing of a workout, eating a meal that contains a good amount of protein within an hour after you exercise should be adequate for recovery and muscle maintenance.
If you’re not going to be eating a meal that soon, a protein-rich snack, including protein shakes, could be a good option. Research suggests that each time we consume protein there is a small spike in muscle synthesis. The optimum response comes from eating 20-25g of what’s known as “high biological value” (HBV) protein, from sources such as dairy, eggs or soy as well as meat, fish and poultry.
These have all the essential amino acids our bodies need, which some of the plant proteins don’t. If you’re looking at plant-based protein powders, check the labels for this information, as they do vary. It’s also worth noting more is not always better; consuming more than 20-25g doesn’t seem to offer any greater benefits, and too much protein can put pressure on your kidneys and liver.
Nutritionists tell us it’s a really good idea to spread our protein intake across the day, rather than loading it into our lunches and dinners. When we do this, we get multiple spikes in muscle protein synthesis, which helps maintain the benefit of exercise and prevent muscle breakdown.
This is particularly beneficial for older people. In a 2017 Canadian study, people who consumed protein in a balanced way during the day had more muscle strength than those who consumed more during the evening meal and less at breakfast.
There’s growing evidence building that older people – especially those over 70 – need significantly more protein than younger people. A recent study in Finland, for example, found that adequate intake of protein is associated with a reduced risk of frailty in older women (“adequate” was defined as at least 1.1g per kg of body weight for people over 65).
So what does this mean in food terms?
For someone weighing 70kg, the Finnish recommendation would be 77 grams of protein. You could get that in the form of two large eggs (13g); two slices wholegrain bread (6g); half a cup of yoghurt (10g); a small chicken breast (33g) and a handful of peanuts (9g).
You can see that spreading our protein intake through the day is relatively straightforward and can be done with whole foods. Aim for protein foods in each meal and snack. You may find “high protein” claims on packaging useful for getting more bang for your protein buck. And don’t forget the rest of your diet – that base of colorful plants is always the place to start in a healthy day.
Protein is the building block of the body. Its main role is growth and repair; it helps in the formation of muscles, hair, nails, skin and organs. Those whose bodies are under extra demand – athletes, growing teenagers, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who are sick or injured – need more protein to keep that growth and repair going.
Protein has another benefit – it gives us a feeling of satiety, meaning we feel full and satisfied when we eat it. There is a theory – known as protein leverage, supported by a growing body of evidence – that we are wired to seek out a certain amount of protein from our food, and we will keep eating until we hit that point. So foods higher in protein play an important role in regulating our appetites.
Niki Bezzant is a New Zealand-based food writer, editor and commentator. She is the founding editor (now editor-at-large) of Healthy Food Guide magazine, and is currently president of Food Writers New Zealand and a proud ambassador for the Garden to Table program which helps children learn how to grow, cook and share food. She is a member of the Council of Directors for the True Health Initiative, a global coalition of health professionals dedicated to sharing a science-based message of what we know for sure about lifestyle and health.