HELP PREVENT MID-LIFE SPREAD
A high-protein diet can boost fitness as well as help maintain muscle
(Without sufficient protein) the body can break down existing muscle tissue to make enzymes, hormones and immune system proteins. Dietitian Priya Tew
I'm a late-life gym bunny. At the age of 59, you'll find me at Pilates, barre, yoga or using the weight machines at my gym most days. But I'm still not as toned as I'd like and a recent test revealed I'd made little progress in building muscle and strength over six months.
Why? The answer could lie with my diet. More specifically, in the lack of protein. It turns out it's much harder to build muscle mass and strength without consuming adequate protein. And as we age, we may need more than we think.
After the age of 30, we lose three to eight per cent of our muscle mass every decade, and this rate of decline is more rapid after 60. What's more, from the age of 50, muscle quality and strength also decline.
This can eventually cause a muscle-weakness condition called sarcopenia, which is a risk factor for frailty and falls. It can occur as early as 65 and affects most people to some degree by the age of 75, especially if we are inactive.
Eating more protein can also help prevent mid-life spread. As a recent study showed, people ate 210 calories more per day than when they were on a low-protein diet. “The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism,” says Kim Pearson, a nutritionist. “If your muscle reduces, so does your metabolic rate.”
Yet most of us aren't eating enough protein.
I plead guilty.
My diet was woefully lacking in protein. But just as I was planning to bring on the steak, a large study published in February found those eating a high-protein diet — more than 1.3 g per kg of body weight — were more likely to have “low muscle mass.” Confused? I certainly was.
Researcher Mary Ni Lochlainn, says those with the highest protein intake got most of their protein from animal sources: “There is some evidence linking red meat with higher rates of inflammation, which can have a negative impact on muscle health.
“Our research showed the importance of eating high-quality protein, including from plants, rather than just larger quantities.”
Once we hit our 40s, our body's ability to turn protein into muscle starts to fade, and we need to get more of it from our diet than when we were younger. Without sufficient protein, says Priya Tew, from Dietitian U.K., “the body can break down existing muscle tissue to make enzymes, hormones and immune system proteins.”
Scientists don't know exactly why we become less efficient at synthesizing protein into muscle as we get older, but in women it could be linked to menopause, and in both sexes, to changes in our gut microbiome.
One study showed better muscle function in over-65s after they were given a microbe-boosting prebiotic supplement rich in the soluble fibre inulin, a type of soluble fibre found in leeks, onions, asparagus, wheat, garlic, oats, soy and Jerusalem artichokes.
Sufficient protein may also protect against osteoporosis, A study has shown that people with the highest protein intakes have a lower risk of hip fractures.
“Adults over 50 need 1-1.2g per kg of body weight of good quality protein every day for optimum health,” says Tew.
According to the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN), older people suffering from “acute or chronic illness” should aim for 1.2-1.5g of protein, with even temporarily higher intakes of up to 2g recommended for people suffering from severe illness, or recovering from injury or surgery.
This means if you are in good health and weigh 140 pounds, you need 63-75g of protein per day — roughly equivalent to two large chicken breasts and an egg or two. Remember no food is entirely made of protein. A quarter-pounder (113g) burger made of 90 per cent beef contains 18g of protein.
EAT PROTEIN AT EVERY MEAL
University of Sheffield researchers suggest we should consume around 25-30g of protein at each of our three daily meals to optimize muscle. Most people fail to meet the target, especially at breakfast.
Adding an egg (6g of protein), smoked salmon (18g of protein in 100g of salmon), Greek yogurt (16g per 150g of yogurt), nuts (6g in 23 almonds) or half a can of beans on two slices of whole wheat toast (17g) and a 250ml glass of milk (9g) are all ways to pack more protein into your morning meal.
CHICKPEAS, NUTS AND RICE COUNT TOO
Ni Lochlainn says: “High-quality protein sources are easily digestible and high in essential amino acids especially leucine,” which is particularly important as it stimulates the rate at which the body transforms dietary protein into muscle and improves strength.
Leucine also helps regulate blood sugar, produces growth hormone and may help with weight control. As the body can't make leucine, it must be obtained from food, Ni Lochlainn recommends eating salmon, chickpeas, nuts, eggs and brown rice.
VEGETARIANS DON'T NEED TO MISS OUT
Studies have found as long as people eat enough protein then a vegetarian diet is as effective as one containing meat. Rich sources of plant proteins include nuts and seeds, lentils, soy, peas and beans.
The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism. If your muscle reduces, so does your metabolic rate.
SNACK ON CHEESE OR GREEK YOGURT
Protein is so filling you might not need to snack. But if you do, try nuts and seeds, cooked chicken, a bowl of Greek yogurt or a small piece of cheese.
ADD WEIGHT TRAINING TO YOUR GYM ROUTINE
“It's crucial to add resistance exercise alongside increasing protein intake,” says Ni Lochlainn. This can build muscle as well as reverse the age-related slowdown in the way protein intake stimulates muscle growth.
According to a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people who ate more protein while weight training gained an extra 10 per cent in strength and about 25 per cent more muscle mass.
Researchers found eating more than 1.6g of protein a day per kg of body weight didn't confer any additional benefits. Plus, you don't need to down a protein shake straight after exercise. The review found gains were similar if people got their protein right after a workout, or in the hours earlier or later.