How does our protein requirement change as we age?

Aging couple walking in countryside

Protein is an essential nutrient and forms the building blocks needed for the proper functioning of our bodies. Protein is important throughout all human life stages but is especially important as we age; our protein requirements increase for numerous reasons, including ageing.

Protein is made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, approximately 20 kinds of which are available in both plant and animal foods. There are 9 ‘essential’ amino acids, ‘essential’ meaning we are unable to make these within our own bodies and so they must be eaten instead. The remaining ‘non-essential’ amino acids, although still important, can be produced by our bodies if we eat enough protein in our overall diet.

Protein has numerous functions within the body and is most commonly known for being involved in growth, repair and maintenance. However, protein also plays a vital role in musculoskeletal, bone and immune health, as well as in the structure and functioning of hormones and enzymes. Protein can also be used as an energy source, helping to fuel the body, as well as helping us to maintain healthy skin, hair and nails.

 

Why is protein important for the elderly?

Protein is fundamental for many aspects of our health, but the importance of eating an adequate amount of protein is even greater as we age. Growing older unfortunately increases the likelihood of developing short- and long-term health conditions, including sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is a degenerative disease, involving the loss of lean muscle mass, and is often seen as a normal part of the ageing process. Although some loss of muscle mass may be unavoidable as we age, eating too little protein and leading an inactive lifestyle can further exacerbate this decrease in lean muscle. The development of sarcopenia can lead to a reduction in quality of life, reduced mobility and cognitive function, as well as an increased risk of falls and fractures. Additionally, insufficient protein intake can impair our wound healing and the ability to fight off infections.

Consuming enough protein may also be more challenging for older adults for several reasons. For example, our taste perception often changes and decreases with age, meaning that food may become less appetising. This may contribute to a decreased appetite, making it more difficult to consume larger meals or volumes of food which were once manageable. Furthermore, as we age, our body’s ability to digest and use protein can be reduced, meaning a higher protein intake is needed to compensate for this. Many older and vulnerable people also live alone and are more likely to struggle to cook balanced nutritious meals for themselves, again making it more difficult to meet protein requirements.

How much protein do seniors need each day?

In the UK, the reference nutrient intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight in adults. This equates to roughly 56g of protein per day for men and 45g per day for women. For elderly populations, many health experts recommend a greater protein intake of 1-1.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight, equating to 75-90g and 60-72g for men and women respectively.

However, very few older adults are currently achieving this protein intake, so deterioration of muscle mass is extremely common.

Protein-rich foods for seniors and the elderly

Protein can be found in a wide range of foods. Protein-rich animal foods include:

  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Eggs

Protein-rich plant sources include:

  • Beans and pulses including lentils and chickpeas
  • Grains including quinoa and oats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Tofu
  • Certain vegetables, including peas

It is important to consider protein quality as well as quantity. Generally, plant sources of protein do not contain all of the essential amino acids, so it is important to eat a variety of plant sources of protein, as different foods contain different amino acids. For example, pairing a bean chilli with rice, or beans with toast, will provide all of the essential amino acids.

Consuming an adequate amount of protein can be even more challenging for people with chewing or swallowing difficulties, known as dysphagia. This may make it more difficult to consume large volumes of food in one sitting, as well as consuming foods with a tough or chewy texture. To help older adults and those living with dysphagia to simply meet their nutritional needs, we have developed our IDDSI 7 Easy-to-Chew Birds Eye soft meals. There are currently 8 different tasty meals to choose from in our range, which have a protein content varying between 16-32g per meal. All of the meals have been created from pureed food timbales which allow us to present the food in an attractive way, replicating a similar appearance to the unpureed version.

We also offer a range of Carezzo protein-enriched foods, including soups designed for those following an IDDSI Level 4 (Pureed) diet, and protein-rich breads and baked goods.

Protein-rich drinks for the elderly

Protein drinks, although often associated with sports nutrition, can be a great way of boosting protein within the diet.

Protein-rich drinks are a quick and convenient way of consuming protein. Ensure drinks are a great source of nutrition, and all the range includes a good amount of protein; the Ensure Max Protein drink provides 30g of protein per bottle!

Are you getting enough protein?

Overall, an adequate protein intake is vital as part of a healthy balanced diet and is key in helping the elderly population to feel their best and stay well. It is important that older adults continually question whether they are consuming enough protein and consider how to incorporate more protein-rich foods into their diets.