How much protein do seniors need?
As we age, the nutritional needs of our body changes. Which is why eating a healthy, balanced diet is important. For older Canadians, that includes getting adequate protein. Protein helps us perform, heal, repair, and maintain our bodies. While everyone needs protein, as seniors, it’s even more essential for optimal health, energy, and well-being.
Why is consuming protein important?
Every cell in our body relies on protein to function and thrive; from our muscles and bones to our hair, skin, and nails. Muscles depend on protein to maintain their strength and trigger movement. Protein is essential for improving cardiovascular health, physical strength, maintaining balance, managing weight gain, and more.
Why is protein so important for seniors?
Muscle loss or sarcopenia naturally occurs at around 50 years of age, and consuming the right proteins can help support muscles and protect bones. Consuming protein helps strengthen muscles and provides energy for aging bodies. Older bodies also benefit from extra support when they’re healing, building, and repairing cells and body tissues. Some studies suggest that consuming protein also decreases your risk of having a stroke or heart condition, while other studies warn that this is only effective when combined with a healthy, balanced diet that is free of processed foods. Proteins also don’t result in a sugar spike like simple carbohydrates do, and can help maintain energy levels throughout the day.
How much protein do I need to consume?
The recommended amount of protein for seniors varies, and depends on several factors, including heart health, medications you take, muscle mass, and other indications. As a rule of thumb, Canada’s Food Guide recommends we fill a quarter of our plate with protein-rich foods. However, research shows that a diet rich in protein might help prevent age-related sarcopenia. According to the Mayo Clinic, based in the U.S. healthy older adults should aim for at least 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 170-pound person (or 77 kilos), this would equate 93 g of protein per day.
Ultimately, it’s always wise to consult your doctor for a recommendation, and build a protein intake plan together. And it’s important to remember that the type and quality of the protein consumed is important. Fatty proteins, like steak, provide a different form of protein than a handful of cashews.
Protein-rich foods perfect for older adults
The best protein-rich foods for those over 50 include the essential amino acid, leucine, which is important for building and maintaining strong bones. Since mobility matters in aging adults, you want to consider your own health profile when choosing a protein plan. As obesity tends to be more common in older adults, the best proteins are also low fat, or contain fats that are healthy and essential for healing and overall health. Let’s explore some protein-rich foods that are great for older adults.
Seeds and nuts
Seeds and nuts are an optimal plant-based protein source for humans because they’re full of healthy fats and still appropriate for those who have concerns about heart health. Many nuts and seeds are high in linoleic acid, which is reported to lower risk of heart disease. Sprinkle nuts and seeds onto cereal, keep them in mason jars for an easy snack, or swap them out for a piece of bread with a healthy soup or salad. Seeds and nuts are also a great source of fibre and will benefit your digestion.
Try these protein-rich seeds and nuts
- Almonds (7 grams per ¼ cup)
- Walnuts (4.5 grams per ¼ cup)
- Pistachios (6 grams per ¼ cup)
- Cashews (4 grams per ¼ cup)
- Pine nuts (4.5 grams per ¼ cup)
More protein-rich seeds and nuts to try include Brazil nuts, pumpkin, hemp, sunflowers, flax, peanuts, and hazelnuts.
Eggs are a great addition to any meal. You can crack one into a boiling pot of soup, enjoy it for breakfast in a frittata with some grilled vegetables, or hard-boil eggs ahead of time for an easy snack to peel and enjoy. An egg holds about six grams of protein, so you’re getting a rich protein source when you add these to your diet.
Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
Yogurt and cottage cheese is a delicious protein source for breakfast with seeds and nuts for a double-down protein start to your day. Check out the label on your yogurt and choose one that’s high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in sugar or sugar-free. You can always drizzle some honey or add fruit for a boost of flavour. Most yogurts offer 15 to 20 grams of protein in one serving, and cottage cheeses can offer up to approximately 23 grams.
Gone are the days when peanut butter stood lonely on the shelf, packed with sugar and preservatives. The nut butters available in most grocery stores vary; from peanut and cashew butter to almond and seed butters. Try dipping fresh apple slices in nut butter for a healthy, protein-packed snack. You can also enjoy nut butters on whole-grain toast, in a smoothie with yogurt and fruit, or on a bowl of porridge with a bit of honey or maple syrup.
Saturated fats on meats like bacon or fatty steaks aren’t ideal, but a chicken breast, lean steak, or a piece of fresh fish can offer a rich source of protein. Some studies suggest that replacing red meat with poultry, fish, or plant-based protein can reduce stroke risk. Try a new source of protein by exploring scallops or a different variety of fish. Cook fish or chicken in a bit of unprocessed olive oil and garlic, add a splash of lemon, a pinch of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a delicious protein source to pair with vegetables for dinner.
Beans and legumes are a wonderful source of fibre, rich in vitamins and minerals, and add delicious texture and flavour to any dish. They’re also high in potassium and probiotics to help you digest your food and low in saturated fats, so they’re beneficial for heart health. Add beans to a salad, soup, or casserole to introduce a healthy protein source. Some grocery stores offer gluten-free noodles made with pea protein, chickpea flour, or beans that you can easily boil into a delicious pasta. This is another enjoyable way to enjoy your proteins in a different form.
Protein-rich beans and legumes to try:
- Great Northern beans (9.7 grams per ½ cup)
- Black beans (7.6 grams per ½ cup)
- Lentils (9 grams per ½ cup)
- Split peas (8.2 grams per ½ cup)
- Black-eyed peas and navy beans (7.5 grams per ½ cup)
- Pinto beans and red kidney beans (7.2 grams per ½ cup)
- Chickpeas or garbanzo beans (6.3 grams per ½ cup)
- Lima beans (6 grams per ½ cup)
- Soy beans (5.6 grams per ½ cup)
- Green peas (4.3 grams per ½ cup)
Easy tips for adding protein to your diet
Integrating more protein into your meals is easiest when you make it a healthy habit. Here are some tips to keep you in a healthy pattern of protein consumption.
- Combine protein sources by sprinkling nuts on your cottage cheese or making a protein smoothie with yogurt.
- Start your day with a fresh drink that includes a vegan protein powder with no synthetic ingredients, preferably from a vegetable source like pea protein. It’s best to get your proteins from food sources, but a scoop of protein powder can help ensure you’re getting enough and is easy to add to a drink in the morning.
- Healthy cheeses like feta are a great addition to a vegetable dish and an easy way to add protein to a salad.
- Choose soups that include beans, chickpeas, or other high-protein foods. Add a scoop of unsweetened yogurt for a creamy taste that ups the protein ratio even more.
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