When we age, our need for protein can go up. That means for some older people, a supplement such as protein pills or protein shakes may be helpful if they aren’t able to get enough just from their diet. Below, we talk more about protein and older people and how they can ensure they’re getting adequate amounts for optimal health.
Protein’s Role in the Body
After water, our bodies are made up primarily of proteins. Proteins are the main component of our cells and are essential to our lives. The structure of proteins is complex, and they’re made up of amino acids linked together in chemical bonds. Some amino acids are essential, so we can’t make them and have to get them from our diet.
Some of the different proteins in our bodies include muscle mass, collagen, skin, hair, and nails. Hemoglobin is a protein, and it’s responsible for transporting oxygen around your body. Most hormones that are chemical messengers are proteins. Enzymes are proteins that regulate metabolism, allow us to digest food, generate energy and regulate insulin production. Antibodies are also proteins, and they’re part of your immune system.
Your body needs protein because it repairs your cells and creates new ones.
Older adults need more foods with protein, especially when they’re losing weight, are affected by a chronic or acute illness, or are hospitalized. During periods of stress, older bodies tend to be less efficient at processing protein. Our bodies need more of it to maintain strength and muscle mass, bone health, and other essential functions.
Even if a senior is healthy, they still need more protein than they did in their younger years to help maintain their muscle mass.
Despite the importance of protein as we age, up to 1/3 of older adults don’t eat enough. Various reasons include impaired taste, reduced appetite, dental issues, and swallowing problems.
A lack of protein intake paired with increasingly sedentary lifestyles can put older people at risk for deterioration of their muscles, problems with mobile, slower recovery from illness, and less overall independence.
Recent research indicates that older people who eat more protein are less likely to lose functioning. In one study that looked at more than 2,900 seniors over 23 years, those who ate the most protein were 30% less likely to experience functional impairment than those who consumed the least.
How Much Protein Do Older People Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per 2.2 pounds of body weight. If you’re a woman who’s 150 pounds, you would need around 55 grams daily, and if you’re a 180-pound man, you might need 65 grams daily.
However, older adults weren’t included in the studies used to establish RDAs, so this recommendation might not fully address their needs.
An international group of nutrition experts and physicians reviewed the recommendations in 2013. It concluded that older adults should aim for 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight daily, and that’s anywhere from a 25 to 50% increase over the RDA.
If a senior has an acute or chronic illness, the suggested protein intake goes up to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kg.
Protein is also especially important if a senior is in a situation leading to muscle disuse—for example, a hip replacement.
Another recommendation somewhat unique to seniors is that they spread protein consumption throughout their day. This is because seniors can’t process protein in their diet as efficiently, so they may need a larger dose per meal.
Animal protein has all of the needed essential amino acids, while plant protein doesn’t have these. If you’re a vegetarian, ensure you eat a varied diet to meet your needs.
What About Supplements?
There are powdered and liquid protein supplements available, and most people don’t need these unless they don’t eat a varied diet, are sick, are hospitalized, or are malnourished. It can be helpful in certain situations, such as recovering from hospitalization.
That then leads to the question of protein pills.
Protein pills have benefits. They’re often made with collagen and bone broth rather than whey protein. This can help seniors deal with pain and joint issues, and collagen proteins can help strengthen muscles and bones.
To meet your actual protein needs as a senior, though, pills shouldn’t be something you rely too heavily on. It’s better to meet your needs for protein through your diet, and if not food, liquids or shakes.