Nutrition

Protein Intake: How Much Protein is Key After 50?

6 min read
As we age, muscle breakdown naturally increases. We explain how nutrient needs evolve over time, and why dietary protein plays such a crucial role in supporting healthy, active aging—along with some simple suggestions for upping your intake.
As we age, muscle breakdown naturally increases. We explain how nutrient needs evolve over time, and why dietary protein plays such a crucial role in supporting healthy, active aging—along with some simple suggestions for upping your intake.

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While there’s no magic formula that guarantees healthy aging, there are a few foundational measures worth keeping in your knowledge arsenal—wellness-supporting habits (minding your nutrition, starting a movement practice, embracing the power of community), that help provide the body with the support it needs to lead a life well-lived, whatever that may look like for you.

To put it simply, aging is a process that affects appearance and physical abilities. It kind of goes without saying, but as we get older, our bodies change—in both small aspects (hello, smile lines) and in more consequential ways, too. Science reveals that optimum muscle mass and strength peak in early adulthood and subsequently decline with age, and that for individuals ages 50 and over, muscle mass decreases at an average rate of 1-2% per year, with strength decreasing at an average rate of 1.5-3% per year.* (1, 2, 3)

While there are several genetic and environmental factors that may influence this process, it should be noted that environmental influences—such as physical activity and nutrition (i.e. calcium intake)—are thought to hold more sway than genetic elements. Translation: For older adults, it’s never too late to start adopting healthy habits—which brings us to the importance of consuming enough protein.* (3)

Keep scrolling to explore why dietary protein plays such a crucial role in supporting healthy, active aging—along with some simple suggestions for upping intake.

Not just for bodybuilders—meeting recommended protein requirements should be a priority for everyone.

Regardless of activity level, in order to properly function, we all need a careful balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals). While they differ in a few ways, these two nutritional building blocks have something in common: they’re integral to the way our bodies work—and ingesting them in the right proportions is crucial for helping to support overall health. (As the names suggest, macronutrient compounds are needed in larger amounts than their micronutrient counterparts—get more details here.)*

Protein is an essential macronutrient, which is to say: The body requires it to function—so much so that regularly skimping on protein needs can have a tangible impact, potentially going so far as to affect muscle growth. This means it can be important to pay attention to not only the amount of protein consumed, but also the quality of protein. In this case, “high-quality” refers to a complete protein source that delivers all nine essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. Ritual’s Senior Scientist, Arianne Vance, MPH, explains: “Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids used by the body, but only 9 of them are considered essential amino acids—which means we need to get them from our diet.”* (4)

So, how much protein is recommended after age 50? It depends. Experts in the field of protein and aging recommend a protein intake of more than 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day for older adults. (The majority of published studies point to a largely beneficial effect of increasing protein intake for this age group.) That said, the current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight a day, which is the minimum amount needed to meet basic nutritional requirements—but may not necessarily be optimal for older adults. (This is especially true among older women, given that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans show that women over the age of 60 are falling short of the recommended intake range for protein foods.)* (5, 7, 9, 10)

Double down on healthy eating habits—and get moving any way you can.

Studies show that the dietary choices we make have a significant impact on bone and muscle health in later life, with evidence pointing to inadequate nutrition playing a major role in the acceleration of age-related muscle loss. At the same time, studies also show that older adults, especially those 70+, are at risk for insufficient physical activity, along with not consuming enough protein—the latter of which is correlated with an increase in age-related muscle mass loss.* (3, 6, 8)

Because muscle protein synthesis is directly correlated with amino acid intake, reduced protein intake is believed to be associated with increased muscle loss. Research has also shown that the impact of physical activity among older adults tends to have a positive effect on muscle strength—with inactivity leading to a cumulative reduction. (The rate of muscle protein synthesis is estimated to be reduced by about 30 percent in later life.)* (3)

The takeaway? No matter your age, it’s never too late to start, or double down on, creating healthy habits—especially when it comes to embracing a nutritious diet and getting in some movement.*

Aim to meet the majority of protein needs through food first. Then, supplement the rest.

Speaking of food, there are many sources of protein out there, ranging from meats and plant foods (legumes, lentils, quinoa) to dairy products (greek yogurt, whey protein powder). Like many nutritionists and registered dietitians, we encourage a “food first” philosophy—that is, aiming to get as many nutrients as you can from your diet, then supplementing the rest.

That said, even with a balanced diet, the reality is that it’s fairly difficult—if not wholly unrealistic—to get enough of the nutrients you need solely from food, all the time. Supplementing with protein can be a smart way to help support any dietary gaps—especially when you take into account that reduced protein intake, which can come with age-related reductions in appetite, is likely to be associated with muscle loss. We formulated Essential Protein 50+ with these changing protein needs in mind. It’s also why we added Calcium HMB for adults 50+ to further support the maintenance of lean muscle mass—so you can get out and live life the way you want to.* (3)

References:

  1. Curtis, E., Litwic, A., Cooper, C., & Dennison, E. (2015). Determinants of Muscle and Bone Aging. Journal of cellular physiology, 230(11), 2618–2625.
  2. Wei, T. S., Hu, C. H., Wang, S. H., & Hwang, K. L. (2001). Fall characteristics, functional mobility and bone mineral density Osteoporosis international : a journal established as result of cooperation between the European Foundation for Osteoporosis and the National Osteoporosis Foundation of the USA, 12(12), 1050–1055.
  3. Curtis, E., Litwic, A., Cooper, C., & Dennison, E. (2015). Determinants of Muscle and Bone Aging. Journal of cellular physiology, 230(11), 2618–2625.
  4. Heaney, R. P., & Layman, D. K. (2008). Amount and type of protein influences. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1567S–1570S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1567s
  5. Pendick, D. (2019, June 21). How much protein do you need every day? Harvard Health Blog.
  6. Courel-Ibáñez, J., Vetrovsky, T., Dadova, K., Pallarés, J. G., & Steffl, M. (2019). Health Benefits of β-Hydroxy-β-Methylbutyrate (HMB) Supplementation in Addition to Physical Exercise in Older Adults: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(9), 2082.
  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov
  8. Ganapathy, A., & Nieves, J. W. (2020). NutritionWhat Do We Know? Nutrients, 12(6), 1755.
  9. Paddon-Jones, D., Short, K. R., Campbell, W. W., Volpi, E., & Wolfe, R. R. (2008). Role of dietary protein. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1562S–1566S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1562
  10. Deutz NE, Bauer JM, Barazzoni R, Biolo G, Boirie Y, Bosy-Westphal A, Cederholm T, Cruz-Jentoft A, Krznariç Z, Nair KS, Singer P, Teta D, Tipton K, Calder PC. Protein intake and exercise: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clin Nutr. 2014 Dec;33(6):929-36.

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Meet our Experts

This article has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

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