Healthy and fit at 60 years old, my patient Kay was complaining only of some hair loss and fatigue. On questioning she assured me she eats “plenty of protein” but I knew we had to go deeper. If you want to stay strong as you age, you have to eat more protein than you might think.
Your protein needs
Actual protein requirements are based on studies of the flux of amino acids, the building blocks of all protein. Our bodies carefully regulate the pool of amino acids in our circulation, and if we don’t eat enough protein, our muscles are broken down to keep the amino acid pool full. Since muscle breakdown is a key feature of unhappy and unhealthy aging, we all want to absorb enough protein from our diet to prevent muscle loss.
Research published in 2016 revised previous upward the previous protein requirements for both young and old adults. It turns out that we should be eating about 1-1.2 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. (Folks who are quite heavy might substitute their "ideal" body weight; people who are a little overweight should use their actual weight.) Lift a heavier fork so you can live a stronger life. (And while you’re thinking about lifting, it would be good to remember to lift heavy weights as well: carefully, and supervised if it’s a new activity for you.)
Example: Kay is tall and lean so her weight is similar to her ideal weight. She tips the scales at about 150 which amounts to 68 kilograms, let’s call it 70. (If she were overweight, we might ask her what is a better weight for her as a better way of estimating the weight of her muscles, the part we want to maintain.) She needs somewhere between 70 and 84 grams of protein a day, how much is that?
She was looking pretty satisfied with herself until I told her that an egg (her breakfast protein) gives her 5-6 grams of protein. A small hamburger patty might just give 15 grams of protein. (Protein grams are not the same as the weight of the food: a 4 ounce burger might be 113 grams in weight but contains only about 15 grams of protein.)
- 3-4 eggs at breakfast, or sub out 1-2 eggs for breakfast meat.
- Servings of meat equivalent to 2 stacked decks of cards at lunch and dinner.
- Substitute or add protein powder drinks occasionally, but look at the label: if 1 scoop is 11 grams of protein, add 3 scoops to your smoothie!
Or more precisely:
If you’re eating food that comes in a package you can read the label: my lunch time tin of tuna fish contained 2.5 servings, each yielding 13 grams of protein. Guess how much I ate? Right, the whole can. A great resource for quantifying the actual amount of protein in your food that doesn’t come in a can is the Nutrition Data website, here, My pork chop from last night, had a bone in and weighed a little under half a pound. Based on this page where there was no half-pound option, I multiplied times two to estimate that my chop gave me 38 grams of protein. (Good compensation for breakfast which was only 2 eggs, or 12 grams.)
How much protein have you had today?