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November 2019

Protein Powers Muscle Maintenance

Ask any bodybuilder with a pantry full of shakes and powders—protein plays a key role in building muscle. But it’s not only young, fit athletes who stand to gain from this power nutrient.

Man in sleeping clothes, about to put cooked eggs on a plate

A blend of protein sources, from both animals and plants, can keep older adults from losing muscle size and strength as they age. This offers a simple way to offset one of the more harmful changes associated with getting older.

Muscle loss normal, but not inevitable

Once you reach age 50, your muscles begin to shrink 1% to 2% each year. Your strength also starts to fall—dropping 1.5% annually. Pass age 60 and that rate doubles.

The consequences extend beyond puny biceps. Losing muscle mass boosts your risk for falls, fractures, and disability. Maintain your muscle, on the other hand, and you’ll stay strong and independent.

Fortunately, you don’t have to sit by and watch your arms, legs, and abs wither away. Adding enough animal protein—including meat, fish, eggs, and dairy—to your diet can help you maintain the size of your muscles. Meanwhile, plant protein preserves muscle strength. Good sources include beans, lentils, and soy products such as tempeh and tofu.

Amp up your daily diet

Ample protein also helps you fight infection and recover from an accident or surgery. Men 51 and older should aim for 5.5-ounce equivalents of protein per day, and women should shoot for 5-ounce equivalents. One-ounce equivalent means an ounce of meat (or fish), one egg, a quarter-cup cooked beans, or a half-ounce of nuts or seeds.

To add more protein power to your daily meal plan:

  • Mix up your main course. Try lean steak or roasts, pork tenderloin, and poultry. And make seafood your protein of choice at least twice a week.

  • Boost salads, soups, rice, and casseroles with beans.

  • Spread peanut butter on your morning toast or afternoon crackers.

  • Stir low-fat cheese or an extra serving of egg whites into your omelet or scramble.

  • Make soup and oatmeal with skim milk instead of water. Or spoon dry milk powder into smoothies, mashed potatoes, or soups.

  • Add pine nuts to pasta, slivered almonds to steamed veggies, or toasted cashews to stir-fries.

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2019
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