Labels on all sorts foods—from breakfast cereals to chips, frozen entrées to ice cream—crow about how much protein they contain. The target audience? People on weight-loss plans and those who want to maintain or regain muscle mass as they age.
The buzz is so strong that in many people’s minds protein has become synonymous with the term “healthy,” and Weight Watchers has incorporated protein into its SmartPoints program.
We do need adequate amounts of protein in our diets, particularly as we age: Protein contains the amino acids that help synthesize muscle and maintain bones. It also may reduce high blood pressure.
But dietary surveys show that more than half of Americans actually get more protein than the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends. And too much red meat protein is not a good thing, as it’s associated with colon cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
While links to bone loss have been refuted, a high protein intake can also be more than the kidneys of someone with chronic kidney disease or diabetes can handle.
Does protein help you lose weight?
According to accumulating data, protein can help with weight loss—at least to a certain extent. But this research is often sponsored by companies in the meat, dairy, and egg industries.
The biggest benefit of protein appears to be that it may help keep you feeling full for several hours so you’ll eat less. Unlike carbohydrates, which often cause your blood sugar level to spike and crash, creating hunger, protein is digested slowly and keeps your blood sugar level steady.
Ultimately, though, people tend to lose the same amount of weight whether consuming high or low amounts of protein: A meta-analysis of 24 trials comparing standard-protein, low-fat diets to high-protein, low-fat diets found that people on the high-protein diets lost only 1.7 pounds more than those on standard-protein diets.
Does protein protect muscle mass?
Our bodies break down muscle every day between meals and build it back up after meals. Protein not only helps you maintain and regain muscle mass, but also strength, which is essential for performing the tasks of daily life, such as carrying a grocery bag, as you age.
We tend to lose muscle mass naturally as we age—about 1 percent per year starting at age 30. When combined with loss of muscle strength, this phenomenon is called sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia affects a third of adults over the age of 60 and more than half of people over age 80. The attrition of muscle can be accelerated by the tendency of older individuals to be sedentary for long periods of time—say, if they’re ill or have had surgery, or it’s too snowy or hot to go outside and be active. What’s more, the body’s ability to make muscle from protein also founders with age.
But sarcopenia can be delayed, most notably by engaging in regular weight training and resistance exercises combined with adequate protein intake. An oft-cited study, the Women’s Health Initiative, found that women who ate more protein had less muscle loss and better physical function than women who ate less protein.
How much protein do you really need?
The government recommendation for protein intake for healthy younger adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. In plain English, that means if you weigh 130 pounds, you should consume 47 grams of protein daily, and if you weigh 185 pounds, you should consume 67 grams.
A simple way to calculate your protein requirement is to divide your weight in half: If, for instance, you weigh 175 pounds, you should consume 87.5 grams of protein a day.
But here’s the catch: Older adults need more protein than younger adults to maintain their muscle mass—about 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight—yet many older adults don’t eat as much food as they used to.
Just as their protein requirements are increasing, they’re getting less. They may not be as hungry, they may have trouble chewing meats and other sources of protein, or they may not want to cook. Frail older adults need even more protein than healthy older adults: 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight, according to some researchers.
Too much or too little?
The first step in meeting your protein requirement is to figure out how much you’re currently consuming. Consult the [USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference](https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/ foods) and click on the food in question to determine how much protein your typical food choices contain.
It’s likely you’re getting enough, since most Americans do, but consider refining your protein mix to the optimal level, according to these tips:
• Consume high-quality protein at every meal. That typically means whole foods, such as 3 ounces of salmon, shrimp, beef, pork, or chicken; 1/2 cup cooked lentils; or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter—not protein-fortified processed products.
Evenly dividing your protein consumption not only ensures that you get enough protein per day, but also makes it more likely that you will build muscle, research suggests. If you’re an older adult (age 60 and above), include at least 20 grams of high-quality protein at every meal, if not 25 to 30 grams.
• If you have trouble chewing or need a good, on-the-go source, supplement your intake with protein shakes and powders (such as whey powder, a product high in the amino acid leucine, critical for building muscle).
• Lift weights or do resistance training to complement your protein intake—the combination is the best way to stay strong throughout your older years.
• With the exception of soy and quinoa, plant-based proteins may be incomplete, containing fewer amino acids than animal-based proteins. Still, by combining different protein types—beans, nuts, seeds, and grains—vegetarians can get the mix of amino acids they need to stay healthy.
• If you’re trying to lose weight, watch your calories and avoid carbohydrates and fats, not protein. You want to make sure to consume enough protein to stay satiated and to maintain your muscles and bones, both of which can thin when you cut calories.
Are diets high in protein and low in carbohydrates dangerous? Read about The Risks of a Low-Carb Diet.
Nancy Monson is a Connecticut-based freelance writer. Her articles have been published in over 30 national magazines and newsletters, including AARP The Magazine, Family Circle, Shape, USA Today, Weight Watchers Magazine, and Woman’s Day. She is also the author of three books, including Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Crafts. Read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.