Protein Intake Should Vary with Age, Studies Suggest

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I tend to have a verbal tug-of-war with my elderly father, who lives with me. As a man who grew up on eating the traditional dinner of meat and potatoes, he is pretty insistent that he wants meat for dinner each night. I, on the other hand, would prefer to eat more vegetables and grains. I’ve had to reach a compromise. I’ll make a chicken breast or pork chop several times during the week and try to focus at least one meal on seafood. I’m also trying to lower the amount of beef that we consume. I try to sneak in plant proteins to our meals by adding chickpeas to stews and using quinoa as a base instead of rice.

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    So does a diet that’s heavy in protein make a big difference health-wise and in how long we live? Several studies offer interesting findings.

    The first study, which is out of Japan, involved 1,007 participants with an average age of 67. Each participant was healthy showed no functional decline at the start of the seven-year study. The researchers assessed the participants’ diet using a food frequency questionnaire. During this study, almost one quarter of the participants reported that they experienced a decline in their functional capacity, which originally had been at a high level. Interestingly, men who had the highest intake of animal protein had a significantly lower risk of experiencing this type of decline than the group of men who ate the least amount of protein. Furthermore, the researchers didn’t see similar associations emerge for the women who participated in the study.

    Then The Wall Street Journal featured a story on diets that are high in protein. The story featured a study involving 858 mice that were fed one of 25 diets that had different ratios of protein and carbohydrates. The researchers found that the mice that ate the higher ratios of protein were leaner but didn’t live longer.

    A third study looked at the effect of dietary protein on older adults’ health. This study involved 6,381 American adults who were at least 50 years of age. The researchers found that the participants who consumed the most protein had a higher risk of dying from diabetes. Participants who were under the age of 65 who consumed the most protein had almost a 75-percent higher risk of death from any cause; this group also had a four-time higher risk of death from cancer. In comparison, the researchers found that consuming proteins derived from plants significantly lowered the risk of death. However, the researchers also found that higher protein consumption may actually be protective for older adults. “These results suggest that low protein intake during middle age followed by moderate to high protein consumption in old adults may optimize healthspan and longevity,” the researchers said.

    So with all this confusing information, what should you do? The Wall Street Journal story included interviews with experts who suggested that people should avoid consuming the majority of their daily protein intake at dinner. Instead, consider spreading protein consumption throughout the day’s meals to maximize protein benefits. Another suggestion is to change what you eat as you age since the body may have more difficulty absorbing protein later in life.

  • So maybe Dad and I are both right in what we’re trying to accomplish diet-wise. While he thinks of a big steak or meatloaf when he thinks of protein, I think that we should find alternate ways to consume protein. Since I’m the cook, I am trying to move us to eating more of a Mediterranean-style diet (which calls for lots of produce, more seafood and legumes). That way, he gets his protein (although I cook him an occasional steak), but I get a diet that has been found to be very beneficial health-wise. That way, we both win!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    Helliker, K. (2014). Diets high in protein may not aid longer lives. Wall Street Journal.

    Imai, E., et al. (2014). Animal protein intake is associated with higher-level functional capacity in elderly adults: The Ohasama study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

    Levine, M. E., et al. (2014). Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell Metabolism.

Published On: March 13, 2014