When you hear high protein diet do you think of bodybuilders? Men and women with large arm, chest and leg muscles? Bodybuilders need high amounts of protein because they build muscle.
But a high protein diet is important for seniors, too. No matter your age or level of fitness, you also need protein. Your body relies on protein to function. Seniors especially need a high protein diet to maintain:
- Overall health
- Muscle strength
- Balance, agility and resilience
Why do Seniors Need a High Protein Diet?
Protein is one of the foundational nutrients that make up your body. Every cell in your body relies on protein to function including:
- Internal organs
Protein is essential for healing, building and repairing cells and body tissue. You need protein to:
- Heal from injuries
- Keep your fluid levels in balance
- Recover from surgery or illness
- Maintain healthy vision
- Balance your hormones and digestive enzymes
Without protein, your body starts to break down muscle mass and bone strength. Research has found that seniors are not able to use protein as easily as younger people, so their bodies may need more protein to meet its needs.
A diet high in protein can protect you from losing muscle, and muscle is important because you require the use of your muscles for everything you do.
Strong bones and muscles allow you to get out of a chair, walk to the store, do yard work, go dancing, or play with your grandchildren. Even simple tasks like pulling on your socks and getting out of the shower are made easier by healthy and strong muscles.
As we age, it is normal to lose muscle mass, but a loss of strength can also cause you to fall. You may also be more susceptible to illness and injury.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that seniors were not getting enough protein, with 6% of men over 71 and 4-6% of women over 50 not getting the recommended amounts of protein.
Why do We Need More Protein as We Age?
Nutritional needs change as we age and one change is that we require more protein. But why? The muscles attached to your bones is where protein is needed the most. These muscles are the ones that move your body. In lean, young adults, 30% of the body’s protein lives in the muscles. 50% of their total body weight could be muscle (like those bodybuilders).
As you age, muscle mass can decrease. By 75-80 years old, only have 25% of one’s your body is made of muscle, on average. Most of this muscle is lost in the legs, which leads to weakness, tremors and feeling tired and achy when walking.
Aging also uses up your reserves. When you are young, you can survive on a diet lower in nutrition. Because you have nutritional reserves. By the age of 65, you may have used up your reserves. A poor diet can cause you to be weak and frail.
How Much Protein Do Seniors Need?
The National Institute of Health recommends that 10-35% of your calories should be from protein. That means if you eat 2000 calories in a day, you need 100 grams of protein. One ounce of a food high in protein will usually have 7 grams of actual protein.
Recent evidence shows that the recommended amounts of protein may be too low for elderly people. Seniors may need 1.0-1.3 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. For example, if you weight 180 pounds this could mean consuming 80-104 grams of protein every day, regardless of your calorie intake.
Where Does Protein Come From?
Protein is found in your food and in your body. Your body breaks down protein into amino acids. Your body uses the amino acids to build, repair and maintain your body. Protein can be from animal or plant sources. Amino acids are either:
Essential amino acids need to come from your food. Nonessential amino acids are made by your body from the foods you have eaten. Conditional amino acids are the ones you rely on when you are ill or injured.
20 Tips for a High Protein Diet for Seniors
Increasing the amount of protein in your diet requires you to have a plan. Here we will outline 20 practical tips for how you can add more protein to your day.
The first rule to follow is to be aware of your protein needs. Then make a list of high protein foods you love to eat. At every meal and snack try to swap out a starch or carbohydrate for a higher protein food.
High Protein Breakfast Ideas
Breakfast tends to be the meal where most people lack protein.
- Add nuts and seeds to cereal. If you enjoy a bowl of cold or hot cereal for breakfast, try decreasing the cereal and replacing with nuts or seeds like:
- Start with an egg. Eggs are a neat little protein package. Each egg holds 6 grams of protein. There are so many ways to eat eggs. For a quick no-cook breakfast, try hard boiling six eggs at a time in advance. Keep in the fridge and grab one for a quick addition to breakfast.
- Make a breakfast bowl. Instead of cereal try a Greek yogurt breakfast bowl. 8 ounces of yogurt could give you 17-20 grams of protein. Throw in a handful of nuts and seeds for even more protein-packed energy.
- Load up on nut butters. Keeping a jar (or two) of your favorite nut butter on hand makes adding protein easy. Try a spoonful of peanut, almond or cashew butter. Be careful to avoid nut butters with added sugars. Eat nut butters:
- On whole grain toast
- Mixed in your oatmeal
- In a shake
- On a sweet potato with cinnamon
- Protein shakes. Protein shakes make a quick and easy protein breakfast. You can use a plant-based or animal-sourced form of protein. Some protein powders will even mix right into your coffee or tea. You want to make sure you use a high-quality protein powder that does not contain:
High Protein Lunch Ideas
- Add Protein to Salads. Salads are a great way to load up on protein and veggies. Add things to create a superfood salad recipe that keeps you full. Try:
- Leftover meat
- Cottage cheese
- Substitute meat for bread. Instead of going for a sandwich, make a meat roll-up. To make a quick lunch-to-go use a couple slices of thin turkey breast wrapped around:
- Top with an egg. Eggs can also be added to your lunch as egg salad. Or just a hardboiled egg along with your regular meal.
- Add beans. Plant-based protein is a quick easy meal. Try a can of rinsed chickpeas mixed with quinoa, fresh parsley and tomato. Add in some feta cheese for extra “yum” and protein.
- High protein soup. Soup or pureed food is great for seniors who struggle with tough textures. You can slow cook stews and soups to make meat or beans softer and easier to digest.
High Protein Dinner Ideas
Most North Americans consume most of their protein at dinner. Protein does not need to be evenly spaced throughout the day. If you like protein later in the day, take advantage of this.
A serving size for a meat protein is typically the size of your palm.
- Have a steak. Beef is a high protein food. If you choose a lean cut of meat, you can increase your portion and protein content.
- Grill chicken breast. Chicken is another meat that you can eat more of if you choose a lean cut. A grilled chicken breast is quick, simple and tasty to add to a plate of vegetables or high protein grains.
- Add some cheese. Cheese adds flavor and is a nice start or finish to a meal. Try a cup of cottage cheese, a few slices of hard cheese or sprinkling cheese onto your soup as a finishing touch!
- Try fish. Fish provides extra options for variety. There are many different types of fish that you can add to your dinner. An average serving of tuna or salmon will give you about 25 grams of protein. Canned and frozen fish are also great choices.
- Meatless Monday. Add in a plant-based meal such as a chickpea falafel, tofu added to a stir-fry, or a hearty five bean soup or chili. Beans tend to have about 15 grams of protein per cup but are low in fat and high in fiber. Try going meat free once a week to mix it up!
High Protein Snacks
Snacks are another place to add in another protein punch. Try a combination of fresh fruits or veggies with:
- Smoked salmon
- Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, mixed nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, walnuts)
- Healthy meat jerky
Making sure that your diet includes enough protein can keep you healthy. You may have more energy and your muscles and bones will be stronger. Try adding some of these foods to your next meal.
Protein Requirements and Recommendations for Older People: A Review
Nutrition Concerns for Aging Populations
United States Department of Agriculture: All About the Protein Foods Group
Medline Plus: Protein in Diet
20 Delicious High Protein Foods