I think a lot of people still view protein in terms of ‘I don’t want to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’, that eating protein will immediately propel them into ‘meat-head bodybuilder’ shape, and they’ll instantly sprout huge muscles.
Whey protein is just a by-product of cheese production. ‘Eat cheese and you’ll instantly get jacked’, sounds silly right?
People are confusing protein intake with steroid usage. It’s an old school view of things which needs to discarded, especially when you actually see how important protein is for long term health.
And, of course, don’t forget body composition.
‘It plays a huge role in improving body composition, and can help someone live better for longer.’
That’s what you should be thinking when you hear the word protein.
If I had to summarise the BEST advice possible to give to someone about looking their best and promoting longevity it would be this;
‘Manage your weight, stay as lean as you comfortably can. Exercise regularly, get strong, and eat well balanced, healthy diet with LOTS of vegetables and adequate protein’.
Adequate protein intake has an important part to play in long term health and body composition.
I was reading lately about intake levels and how the recommended daily intake is HIGHER than normal for older populations, so I decided to look into why with the help of my coach, Alex (who has forgotten more about nutrition than I’ll ever know).
He passed on a study review to read (Live long and prosper – the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy ageing -McLeod et al. 2015), so the information presented here is a combination of my notes and paraphrased quotes (anyone who has ever read a research paper knows they can be hard to read).
The intro to study goes like this…
‘By 2050 one quarter of Europe’s population will be over 65, representing a 10% rise in half a century. This leads to an increase in the prevalence of ageing related diseases and the associated healthcare expenditure’.
As I was putting the article together when I stumbled across a headline;
Nearly 20% rise in population aged over 65 since 2011 – CSO*
‘The average age of the Republic’s population rose by 16 months to 37.4 years between 2011 and last year’s census.
The latest Central Statistics Office analysis of the returns shows that the group aged 65 and over grew by almost one-fifth, 19.1%, over the same period, making it the fastest-growing sector.’
So I got kinda lucky here, just by chance the Central Statistics Office has released figures from Ireland on the subject matter. The study was from 2015, so it is pretty cool to see it when fact matches up to prediction.
We can see there’s a clear trend that populations in developed countries are living longer lives, but that doesn’t mean that they are living BETTER for longer.
Modern medicine has allowed people to manage conditions that would have previously shortened life span, so through some kind of reasonably healthy lifestyle, or with the help of medication, more people are living past 65.
But let’s say a person lives past that age and has avoided any kind of serious illness, does this mean they have good quality of life and are mobile/without problems?
As you age ‘growth impairments occur in skeletal muscle which leads to reduction in muscle mass and strength, factors directly associated with mortality rates in the elderly’.
Sarcopenia, as it’s known, is ‘the progressive and generalised loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength with the risk of adverse outcomes such as disability, poor quality of life, and death’.
Why is skeletal muscle so important?
‘Skeletal muscle helps maintain posture, breathing and locomotion, but is also an important nutrient store and metabolic regulator’.
It is attached to bone and is what facilitates movement, so you can see where this debilitates problems will occur.
As we age, it gets harder and harder to retain muscle unless you’re doing the right things.
During ageing ‘approximately 30% of peak muscle mass is lost by 80 years, this is compounded by physical inactivity and poor nutrition’.
Loss of skeletal muscle mass can result in impaired locomotion function, compromised balance and increased risk of osteoarthritis and falls/fractures.
Is it possible to retain skeletal muscle mass as you age?
Take a look at the image (taken from the review paper).
All 3 subjects consumed the same level of protein per day. The difference be D and E, was that E is 4 times more active. You can see the difference in retention of muscle tissue (dark colour) and the lesser amount of fat tissue (lighter colour).
It’s clear to see the more active participant retained more muscle mass, and the separator here was exercise as they both had the same protein intake.
Before we have a look at exercise more specifically it’s important to note that’s there is no short cut here.
‘Pharmalogical interventions aimed to slow the progression of, or reverse sarcopenia, have generally been unsuccessful’.
This stuff is important because there’s no easy way around it, there’s no pill you can buy.
The Importance Of Strength And Fitness.
The following graph shows data from a study with 8,000 participants reviewed over an 18 year period to assess the influence of muscle strength and cardio-respiratory fitness on healthy ageing.
The higher the bar, the higher the mortality rate.
Participants who were over 60 years old and in the lower third for strength were 50% more likely to die from all cause mortality than the upper third.
The same statistics applied to death from cancer.
Similarly, individuals with higher cardio-respiratory fitness had greater life expectancy than those with low levels.
The bottom line is that if you are strong and fit you’ll live longer than if you are weak and unfit.
The Importance of Protein.
‘Protein is an ESSENTIAL (we need it to survive) macronutrient for the maintenance of muscle mass and function, and by close association bone strength and density’.
The current recommended daily allowance levels are listed as 0.8g per kg of bodyweight per day.
If I was to work this out for myself (I weigh 83kg) it runs at 66 grams of protein daily.
Quite simply, there is strong evidence across the board that the RDA on protein intake is outdated and set too low. Here’s an outtake from another article on protein requirements for the elderly*.
‘The RDA you will find on the nutrition labels on your food, however, were set in 1968, and the ones used by researchers and professionals were set in 2003. A recent review published in Frontiers in Nutrition points out that both these values do not do justice to the protein needs of the elderly and critically ill.
“A big disservice is being done. The prescribed 0.8 g/kg/day just isn’t enough protein for the elderly and people with a clinical condition. This shouldn’t be communicated as what is ‘allowed’ or even ‘recommended’ to eat.”, author Stuart Phillips of McMaster University in Canada explains’.
Stu Phillips is a boss when it comes to protein, if he talks on the matter you can bet your bottom dollar what he’s saying is relevant.
Also, the RDA does not differentiate between young and old populations, so it’s like saying ‘everybody is the same’.
It doesn’t sound right, right?
A retrospective analysis (Moore et al 2015) was performed from a large cohort of young and old individuals and it showed that older individuals needed a higher intake. It marked a concern because most older people don’t even meet the current RDAs.
The data presented pointed toward a 1.8g per kg daily recommended protein intake, more than twice the current RDA.
Inadequate protein intake is also a concern when it comes to illness and disease.
‘Many elderly individuals do not consume sufficient protein to maintain whole-body and tissue specific metabolic health, a situation that is worsened through disability and illness. Malnourishment during acute and chronic disease slows the rate of recovery and increases the risk of complication and re-admittance’.
General health, body composition, recovery from illness, recovery from disease, adaptations to training…I hope some of the information presented has shown the importance of protein in someone’s diet.
Apply a ‘1.2 – 2.0g per kg of bodyweight per day’ protein guideline as a minimum RDA (I like 1.8g/kg, I always lean toward the higher end). I would argue this should be done across the board as a baseline in individuals without any complications related to protein intake.
This will generally be well above normal for most people especially the elderly, so why not use a whey protein supplement if needed (it’s really just food).
If you remember from earlier in the article the RDA for me worked out at 66 grams of protein per day. These guidelines point to anything between 100 and 166 grams.
The current RDA’s are outdated.
Work out what you or the individual in question needs and spread it across the day. Generally, a requirement of 1.2-2g/kg means someone will need to eat a source of protein with every meal. This will be different to what someone is currently used to as people don’t eat enough protein, but habits are easily built with a bit of dedication and you can see how important it is to our health and longevity.
One really cool point that was highlighted on my year long evidence based nutrition course with Mac-Nutrition was the recommendation of meal delivery services for elderly clients. There are plenty of these companies operating and the meals they offer are usually all high in protein as a lot of them cater for the health and fitness demograph.
Why not use this brilliant service for the elderly? It’s a perfect fit.
Exercise more, do some form of strength training multiple times a week. An active life with stronger, healthy skeletal muscle and adequate supporting nutrition promotes longevity and quality of life.
Stronger, fitter people have been shown to live longer…protein intake is a piece of that puzzle that is something everyone should consider, young and old.
How does your protein intake look?
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