It gets harder to keep muscle strength as you age. We naturally lose muscle mass as we grow older. But how big is this problem, really?
When you’re in your 40s, you lose about 1% of your muscle mass and strength each year. By the time you reach your 70s, you’ll lose another 30% of your remaining muscle mass each decade. And while you may be concerned about what that does to your physical appearance, there’s a much more serious problem…
Muscle loss is one of the main reasons older adults are prone to falls and fractures.
And for many older adults, these falls and fractures start an unpleasant downward spiral.1 It’s harder for them to do the activities they once enjoyed. Or to take care of their house… or even themselves. In short, muscle loss can start a heartbreaking cycle that leads to a loss of independence.
Here’s What You Can Do
Lucky for us, there are things we can do to prevent age-related muscle loss. Exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise is a good one. But the type of food we eat matters, too. One of the best ways to maintain muscle mass is to make sure you eat enough protein.2 Yes, protein.
You may know your body needs protein to stay healthy. It’s in every one of your cells – muscles, organs, skin and even hair. Your body also uses protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other important chemicals.
So without enough protein, just about everything in your body starts to break down. That’s why, if you don’t eat enough, your body steals it from your muscles.
Protein Deficiency Common in The Elderly
This is one reason people lose muscle mass and strength as they age, and why older adults become frail. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilo of weight.
But you may be surprised to hear older adults need much more if they want to hang on to their muscle mass and strength. Why? Because older adults can’t digest and metabolize protein as well.
How much more protein do you need? Adults 65 and over should get at least 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight every day.3 To figure out your weight in kilos, take how much you weigh in pounds and divide it by 2.2. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you would be about 63 kilos. That means you’d need to eat from 63 to 76 grams of protein every day, or roughly two-and-a-half to three ounces.
But there’s more to it than just getting enough protein…
You Need The Right Kind of Protein
If you only look at the number of grams of protein you eat, you may still miss your protein needs, because your body doesn’t absorb all proteins the same way.
Imagine you’re eating your favorite type of protein for dinner. When the protein reaches your stomach, your digestive juices break it down into amino acids. And it’s the amino acids your body wants from the protein.
Your body absorbs the amino acids it can use and transforms them back into a protein. You can think of amino acids as the building blocks of protein. But the protein your body creates from these various pieces is different from the one you just ate… they’re transformed into the kind of protein your body needs.
This fascinating process releases nitrogen. And we can tell how much of a protein your body uses by measuring the nitrogen in your urine.
This measurement is called Net Nitrogen Utilization, or NNU. When your body uses more of the protein you eat, more nitrogen is released, resulting in a higher NNU. When your body uses less of the protein, less nitrogen will be released. You will have a lower NNU.4
Which Foods Have The Most Bioavailable Protein?
No food protein has an NNU of 100%. In fact, the food with the highest is eggs.
Whole eggs have an NNU of 48%, and by the way, you’ll miss out if you only eat the egg whites. They have an NNU of just 17%. Beef, fish and poultry typically have an NNU of about 32%. And it may surprise you that protein powders and supplements have an even lower NNU – about 16 or 17%!
So you have to know how much protein you need to eat each day to help maintain your muscle. (Use the calculation I gave you above to find out what’s right for you.) And you need to make sure you eat at least some high NNU protein. If you can’t eat high NNU foods for some reason, there are a number of essential amino acid supplements available on the market. They can help you get what you need.