Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength caused by natural ageing. The condition’s main symptom is muscle weakness. Fortunately for our aged population, there is a straightforward solution to this condition. Protein and plenty of it.
As our bodies age, they often have more to deal with, such as weight loss, chronic pain and recurrent illness, which impact overall health. That’s why protein is crucial for maintaining independence, quality of life, and health for elderly adults. During these stressful periods, ageing bodies process protein less efficiently and need more of it to maintain muscle mass and strength, bone health and other essential physiological functions.
After water, our body is mainly composed of proteins. Proteins are often called “the building blocks of life” and comprise many smaller units called amino acids.
There are many different types of proteins in the body, and they play a significant role in the following:
- • Creating muscle mass
- • Collagen, which provides strength and structure to tissues (e.g. cartilage)
- • Skin, hair and nail integrity
- • Haemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body
- • Enzymes that aid with digestion, generate muscle energy, and regulate insulin production
- • Antibodies which underpin our immune response
Muscle mass is at the top of that list and is the most important for preventing sarcopenia. Several studies have identified protein - especially Essential Amino Acids (EEAs) - as a critical nutrient for muscle health in elderly adults. There is abundant evidence that muscle plays a central role in preventing many chronic diseases, including diabetes and obesity. In addition, evidence that optimal health for elderly adults is dependent on maintaining muscle mass is emerging. Older individuals require a higher concentration of amino acids than younger individuals.
Recent research suggests that older adults who consume more protein are less likely to lose “daily functionality”: the ability to: get out of bed, get dressed, walk up a flight of stairs and so on. For example, in a 2018 study1 that followed over 2,900 seniors for more than 23 years, researchers found that those who ate the most protein were 30% less likely to experience functional impairment than those who ate less.
The big question is: how much should we eat per meal, and then per day? To prevent slow sarcopenic muscle loss, clinicians stress the importance of ingesting enough protein with each meal. To maximise muscle protein synthesis while being aware of total energy intake, experts propose a dietary plan that includes 25–30 g of high-quality protein per meal.
Another recommendation calls for older adults to spread protein consumption evenly throughout the day. Research shows that seniors are less efficient at processing protein in their diet and may need a more significant “per-meal amount.” This means looking for easy-to-prepare meals that are not only high in protein but also bring variety by swapping out sauces and trimmings.
As for daily intake, one study suggests that the consumption of dietary protein as much as 30–35% of total caloric intake may prove to be beneficial.2
Aged Care menu-makers are encouraged to utilise protein-rich products that are quick to prepare, consistent in size and flavour, and easy to chew and digest. For example, quality frozen beef and lamb products are high in nutrients, rich in iron, zinc and omega 3 and provide a unique ‘power pack’ of protein essential to optimal health. Hamburger patties, rissoles and meatballs give menu planners many options for delicious homestyle meals that keep residents happy and healthy, especially when low-fat and low sodium ‘lite’ options are available.
Focusing on a diet high in protein means that residents in aged care facilities will have the muscle mass (and therefore the strength) to complete daily tasks without assistance and need fewer visits with medical professionals.
In short, the data suggests that higher protein intake is associated with better strength, physical performance, and lean muscle mass in older adults. So the more quality protein we eat every day as we get older, the better off we’ll feel as our bodies adjust to the challenges of advancing in years.