Do Older Adults Need More Protein?



By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


Nutritional deficiencies are pretty common in the United States. But there is one nutrient that most American adults get an adequate intake of  - protein. This especially holds true for people who eat animal foods such as eggs, poultry, fish and beef (which are all very high in protein). There are also plenty of plant-based protein sources including black beans, chickpeas, green beans, fava beans and more. And there are even concerns that some people may be getting way too much protein

Protein is one of the six groups of nutrients we need to stay healthy. (The other nutrient groups are water, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals). Our bodies use protein to build and repair tissues and make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals.

This is why a protein shake is a great post workout treat. We need protein for muscle growth and repair.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein for a person older than19 is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. 

“The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick — not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day,” according to Harvard Health.

Many of us are exceeding the RDA for protein. (You can find out how much protein you may personally need, along with other nutrients, by using this online calculator).

With that said, there is a population of people who might want to consider exceeding the RDA of protein for adults. We are referring to the elderly population. 

A recent study published in the medical journal Advances in Nutrition suggests that older adults should maybe have an RDA of protein of at least or more than 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Why is this?

It’s really quite a simple concept. As we age, we naturally lose muscle. The medical term for this condition, which I previously blogged about, is called sarcopenia. This natural part of aging can put us at risk of falls and may make us less mobile, affecting our quality of life by making it more difficult to do the things we want to do. 

Although the study does not give an exact age for what is considered an “older adult (an elderly person is usually considered to be someone who is 65-years-old or older).” You should also be aware that once you hit the “30 & Up Club,” you start to lose muscle mass and function. Harvard Health actually reports that after age 30, you begin to lose as much as three percent to five percent per decade.

This doesn’t mean that you have to start downing protein shakes every day once you turn 30, but I think it’s very important to know about age-related muscle loss and how you can be proactive. 

Because protein is such a key nutrient in muscle building and repair, “observational data show that higher protein intakes are associated with greater muscle mass and, more importantly, better muscle function with aging,” according to the study report.

Furthermore, the study suggests that older adults put an emphasis on getting a good intake of the amino acid leucine.

Leucine is one of nine essential amino acids in humans (provided by food), Leucine is important for protein synthesis and many metabolic functions. Leucine contributes to regulation of blood-sugar levels; growth and repair of muscle and bone tissue; growth hormone production; and wound healing. Leucine also prevents breakdown of muscle proteins after trauma or severe stress and may be beneficial for individuals with phenylketonuria. Leucine is available in many foods and deficiency is rare,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Although deficiency in this amino acid may be rare, older people may need to be especially proactive about getting an adequate intake of leucine in order to preserve muscle health as they age. (For a list of foods very rich in leucine, read here). 

Not all proteins are created equal.

There is a difference between animal protein and plant-based protein. 

The study says that “the quality of dietary protein (animal compared with plant) may be an important modifiable risk factor for sarcopenia. Plant-based proteins are less anabolic than animal-derived proteins on a gram-for-gram basis due to lower digestibility and lower content of EAAs [essential amino acids] and leucine in particular. However, with an adequate protein intake, the dietary protein source may not matter.”

So it really all depends on the individual, and every individual should seek the advice of a competent healthcare professional when it comes to protein intake and other nutritional requirements. 

Along with delaying age-related muscle loss, elderly adults having a higher intake of protein may also benefit from better bone health if their intakes of vitamin D and calcium are adequate. All of these nutrients work together to maintain both muscle and bone health.

Precautions with a higher protein intake?

Again, you always want to seek the advice of a competent healthcare professional when it comes to your personal nutritional needs.

An often-proffered reason as to why higher protein intakes should not be recommended for older persons is the risk of renal disease,” the study says,

How else can you be proactive?

Protein is not the only nutrient that may play a key role in preventing muscle loss as we age. For example, minerals and vitamins such as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin D may help maintain strong, healthy bones. And your bones protect your internal organs and provide support for your muscles.

If you drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation. Overdoing it on the booze is a sure way to accelerate muscle loss and slow down muscle function. Exercise, especially resistance training, is also important when it comes to muscle health and function.

To learn more about how you can be proactive about sarcopenia, read here.

Finally, it is also extremely important to determine whether you are absorbing adequate amounts of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat as you age. Your body’s ability to absorb nutrients decreases with age. And one of the best ways to determine whether you have any nutrient deficiencies is to obtain a nutritional test.


Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.   


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