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Increased protein intake could reduce muscle loss in elderly

Michael Stern

Increased protein in your diet can help aid in weight loss and build muscle mass, and while most of us get plenty of protein each day, one group isn’t getting enough of it. A recent review challenging the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) says that elderly and critically ill patients aren't getting enough protein to combat muscle loss.

Dr. Stuart Phillips, a Professor at McMaster University, and director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE), joins us today to discuss his review in Frontiers in Nutrition challenging the RDA on protein intake guidelines (RDA is established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences).

As you get older it seems common that you become weaker and can't do as much as you used to. Age related sarcopenia is when you gradually lose muscle mass with age.  Phillips says a way to slow down the progression of sarcopenia is increasing your daily protein intake.

Credit litherland / Flickr

Following the established RDA, an average adult should get .36 grams of protein per one pound of body weight a day, or 46-56 grams for the average sedentary adult. Protein is important for building cells and tissue. While this is a recommended guideline, Phillips suggests that adults should be getting more each day.

"I think at least fifty percent, around 1.2 grams per kilogram per day or even twice as high," says Phillips. "So I think that by most people’s standards when the Institute of Medicine comes out and says this is the goal to aim for because as the name implies, it's recommended and it's all you're allowed to have. That when you're fifty percent greater or one hundred percent greater or twice as high then that is a substantial underestimation."

In addition to changing your diet, increasing your physical activity can help slow down the progression of sarcopenia, he says.

“I do think that it’s more important to emphasize somewhat like the protein message that being physically active and engaging in whether it’s physical activity in a leisure time, walking or gardening that sort of thing or actually going to the gym and doing structured exercise has a similar effect as protein. It is essentially anti-sarcopenic.”

How to get more protein in your diet

When choosing the type of protein to add into your diet, a higher quality protein is best. Animal based protein from meat, dairy, and eggs is not only protein rich, but also are very nutrient dense as well. While not everyone eats animal products, people who do rely on plant source protein need to plan on eating slightly more protein rich foods to reach their daily requirement.

Many are worried that an increased amount of protein in your diet could lead to decreased kidney and bone health, but Phillips says it is actually the opposite. Studies have shown that a like muscle health, these problems come with age as well. 

"So what we see with older people who have lower kidney function -- it is a lot like lower muscle mass, lower strength, lower bone density, it just tends to happen as we age and there’s no evidence that links a higher protein diet particularly, even in the ranges I am talking about here, to progressive declines in kidney function," Phillips says.