Do Not Get Up from the Table Until You Have Finished All of Your... Meat!
Vegetables aren't the only stars of the plate in the Third Act
Most of the time, in these articles I write that are focused on nutrition, I tell you to eat your vegetables. Carnivores rejoice! This time, I’m (mostly) going to ignore the vegetables and focus on protein. Plants have protein, too, so even if you are not a carnivore, this article is for you. In fact, if you don’t eat meat, or at least animal products, this article may be more important for you.
Why and when we need more protein
It turns out that, as we age, our bodies likely need us to eat more protein. This is for a lot of reasons. First, our bodies aren’t able to absorb protein as well as we age. That is particularly true if you have chronic inflammation from some of the metabolic issues that arise in older adults, like diabetes, high cholesterol or even heart disease.
Secondly, sadly, we lose 30 to 50 percent of our muscle mass between ages 40 and 80. Protein can help stave off that muscle loss. It’s not going to stop it, but it can slow it down some. (The real key, here, is to USE the muscle mass you have left so it can compensate (mostly) for the stuff you are losing. Protein helps build the muscle that is left, but you have to exercise it, as well.)
Also, if you have injuries or surgeries, protein helps your muscles recover, which is critically important if you are going to get up and around - which, of course, is the preferred outcome. Older adults tend to have more injuries and surgeries than their younger counterparts. It also helps keep you from having those injuries in the first place, because the more muscle mass you have, the less likely you are to fall and injure yourself, or injure yourself doing everyday activities that require lifting, lunging or dexterity.
Finally, and this is the most important to me, recent research suggests that older adults who consume more protein are less likely to lose “functioning,” which roughly translates to taking care of yourself without help. In a 2018 study that followed more than 2,900 seniors over 23 years, researchers found that those who ate the most protein were 30 percent less likely to become functionally impaired than those who ate the least amount.
How much do we need?
Recent studies indicate that seniors (those over 65) need as much as a 50% boost in their protein intake compared to younger adults. The general guidelines for younger adults weighing 150 - 200 pounds is 55 to 70 grams of protein per day. There’s about 25 grams of protein in 3 oz of beef, chicken or most fish. So most adults who eat meat can get their recommended protein from what most consider a “dinner size” portion of animal protein - 6 to 8 oz. But, because of the need for increased protein, after 65 these studies say you’ll need anywhere from 8 - 12 oz of meat chicken or fish (75 to 105 grams of protein) per day as you age. That could mean nearly a “dinner size” portion for more than one meal per day. Here’s where the vegetables come in. The rest of the food on your plate for all three meals and a snack, kinda needs to be fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You just don’t have enough calories to “play” with them anymore, if you’re going to increase your protein by 50%. Your body needs you to fill in all of the rest of your calories with nutrition-dense fruits, veggies and unrefined grains. You probably don’t have enough calories left for that big piece of cake (half a cake?) or Baileys aperitif (half a bottle?) every single day. (Sometimes is fine. You are human, after all.)
If you don’t eat meat, your best sources of protein are still animal products, with Greek yogurt and low-fat cottage cheese clocking in at 12 - 14 grams per 4 oz portion. You’ll need to work hard to get protein in all three meals and your snack. For you, too, the rest of your plate should be whole fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains. Again, there just aren’t many calories left for you to get crazy with the empty calories.
If you don’t eat animal proteins, you are likely already pretty aware of protein in your diet. It could be a challenge for you to eat enough protein with this increased level and still stay within calorie guidelines. You really need to squeeze every bit of nutrition from your diet that you can. A nutritionist could be your best friend as you age. Did you know that Medicare comes with free access to a nutritionist if your doctor deems it medically necessary? See if you can get a referral.
Here’s a handy-dandy chart of the protein content of some common foods.
But wait! That’s not all…
Even if you get enough protein, these studies show that it matters WHEN you eat your protein. If you eat a 12 oz. steak for dinner, that’s not really going to work. Your body can only absorb so much protein at a time. The rest will be eliminated. Most experts say you should spread it out evenly over all of the meals throughout your day. That probably means eggs and turkey or veggie sausage or a big Greek yogurt and fruit parfait for breakfast, since most breakfast foods aren’t going to get you 25 - 30 grams of protein.
I hope I haven’t scared you off with all of this talk about discipline, measuring and restrictions. The key thing to remember is just that, as your body ages it needs a lot more protein. If you’re in your kitchen making lunch, throw an extra few pieces of turkey on that sandwich and opt out of the Ritz crackers. That’s a definite step in the right direction and that’s all you really need. One step at a time.