Protein Requirements for Older Adults
Protein requirements for older adults may be different than for younger adults.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) tells us how much protein we should be eating every day. The DRI for protein in adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (1). For an individual who weighs 150 pounds, they would need approximately 55 grams of protein per day.
The DRI for protein is the same for older adults as it is for younger adults. However, research suggest that older adults may indeed need more protein (2).
In this article we will dig deep into why protein is important, how much protein an older adult requires, and how to get enough protein in their diet.
Why is Protein Important for Older Adults?
Protein is a macronutrient essential for life. This means that every single person needs this nutrient in order to stay alive. Protein plays a role in immunity, maintaining muscle, and maintaining physical function for older adults.
What is Protein?
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids that our bodies need. Of these, 9 are considered “essential” meaning our bodies cannot make them and we must get them from diet.
Animal-based protein sources are often called “complete” proteins because they contain all of the amino acids. This includes meat, eggs, and dairy.
Plant-based protein sources are often called “incomplete” proteins because they contain some, but not all, amino acids. Those following a plant-based diet just need to make sure they eat a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day to ensure their body is getting the protein they need.
Protein for Protecting Muscle
Sarcopenia is the gradual loss of muscle with aging. It robs older adults of their independence and leads to a poor quality of life. Protecting muscle with aging is SO important. And protein has an important role in protecting muscle.
Eating enough calories to prevent unintended weight loss is the first step to prevent or minimize loss of muscle. Next, we need to make sure an older adult is eating enough protein along with resistance and endurance exercise. Both protein and exercise go hand-in-hand with protecting muscle in seniors.
Protein for Overall Health
Protein is important for overall health in older adults. Every cell in our bodies contain protein; it’s not just in our muscles. Protein is a building block in our skin, hair, blood, bones, etc. Protein is important for overall health.
Not getting enough protein can lead to malnutrition which can increase risk of falls, hospitalizations, disability, and early death. In a nutshell- protein is important. We need to make sure older adults get enough.
How Much Protein Does an Older Adult Need?
As previously mentioned, the DRI for protein in adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (1). However emerging research suggests older adults need more. Let’s take a peek at some research and what the experts in this field have to say.
Expert Opinion & Research on Protein in Older Adults
In 2013 a position paper was released from the PROT-AGE Study Group (2). These are experts in the field of geriatrics. Their position paper highlights research that shows older adults need more protein than the RDA to support good health, promote recovery when ill, and to maintain functionality (muscle strength and independence!).
The PROT- AGE Study Group recommends that older adults consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (2).
Another expert group had similar recommendations. The European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN) also recommended that older adults should get 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight from their diet (3).
There continues to be ongoing research in the area of protein requirements for older adults.
Protein Requirements for Older Adults
The exact protein requirement for older adults has yet to be established. However, per current research and expert opinion, it is recommended that most older adults consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight to preserve muscle (2, 4).
For an individual who weighs 150 pounds, they would need approximately 68- 82 grams of protein per day. This would be 13-27 grams of protein per day more than an individual of the same weight who consumes 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight.
There are certain situations where an older adult may need more protein. For example, if they have a non-healing wound or pressure injury. Or if they are in the hospital and their bodies are healing from injury. There are also situations where an older adult may need less protein, for example if they have kidney disease.
Protein Requirements for Older Adults
|Age||Source||Recommended grams of protein per kilogram body weight|
|Age 18 and older||DRI||0.8|
|Age 65 and older||Expert Opinion/Research||1.0 – 1.2|
Be Cautious with Too Much Protein
The old saying “too much of a good thing is a bad thing” holds true with almost every nutrient, including protein. While protein is important, it is a delicate balance. Providing too much protein can cause issues like dehydration and in those with kidney disease, it can further kidney damage.
Those with kidney disease may actually need less protein and not more. It is important to speak with your doctor and/or a geriatric dietitian to determine your individual needs.
How to Get Enough Protein
Getting enough protein requires eating high quality protein food sources throughout the day. Most older adults do not need protein supplements, but they are available for those who cannot get enough protein in their diet through food alone.
Spread Protein Throughout the Day
Some people only eat one large meal per day. Or they eat minimal to no protein at certain meals.
Breakfast meal that can easily be void of protein. If an older adult eats a pastry and coffee every day for breakfast, they are getting virtually no protein at this meal.
Can’t the pastry breakfast eater just get more protein at lunch? The problem is that our bodies can only synthesize so much protein at a time. Research suggests that ~30 grams of protein at a time is needed for maximal muscle protein synthesis (4).
A more even distribution of protein throughout the day has been shown to be associated with higher muscle mass in older adults (4). As such, spreading protein throughout the day (with 3 meals or adding on high protein snacks) is a good way to ensure our bodies are able to use the protein we are consuming.
Protein Food Sources
The very best way to get protein is through food first. Of note, some of the foods highest in protein come from animal sources. Older adults who follow a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern should eat a wide variety of plant-based high protein foods throughout they day to ensure they are getting enough protein.
Food sources high in protein (5):
- Green peas
Be sure to check out our High Protein Foods SERIES on RD2RD which includes a high protein food list, grocery list, and meal planner!
Not everyone can consume the protein they need through food alone. If food interventions have failed, then adding protein supplements can help. Protein supplements include protein powders or protein drinks.
Be cautious with protein supplements because they can make it easier to provide too much protein.
Protein powders are a great way to add more protein to the foods an older adult is already eating. It can be added to beverages or foods like oatmeal or pudding.
There are many different types of protein powder to choose from:
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Soy protein
- Pea protein
- Hemp protein
Whey protein and casein protein powders are animal based. Soy, pea, and hemp protein powders are plant based. There are differences between types and individual needs. We will be writing more articles on protein powder options in the future.
Protein drinks are pre-made and are an easy way to consume protein. By contrast, oral nutrition supplements are nutrition drinks which are high in both protein and calories. A protein drinks is a good option for those that don’t need the added calories of an oral nutrition supplement.
There are many different types of protein drinks to choose from. The key is finding one that an older adult enjoys and will actually drink. Adding flavored syrups to protein drinks is one way to add variety. You can also freeze them and serve them in a bowl like ice-cream.
Protein is an important nutrient for older adults. Protein requirements for older adults are generally higher than that of younger adults. Most older adults will need 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight.
Protein is found in a variety of foods but can also be provided through protein powders and protein drinks. Getting enough protein can help older adults protect their muscle and quality of life. Do not forget to incorporate resistance and endurance exercise with adequate protein to protect muscle mass.
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2005. https://www.nap.edu/read/10490/chapter/1
- Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. Journal Of The American Medical Directors Association. 2013 Aug 1;14(8):542-59.
- Deutz NE, Bauer JM, Barazzoni R, Biolo G, Boirie Y, Bosy-Westphal A, Cederholm T, Cruz-Jentoft A, Krznariç Z, Nair KS, Singer P. Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clinical nutrition. 2014 Dec 1;33(6):929-36.
- Farsijani, Samaneh, et al. “Relation between mealtime distribution of protein intake and lean mass loss in free-living older adults of the NuAge study.” The American journal of clinical nutrition3 (2016): 694-703.
- FoodData Central. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/. Accessed September 27, 2020.