Many people think protein is only good for building big biceps—but while the macronutrient does help us look and feel fit, it also has a huge impact on our long-term health and mobility. Here, experts share why we need even more protein as we age and what’s at stake if we fall short.
Why Protein Matters
“Protein plays a key role in human nutritional status and allows for many vital functions of the human body to take place,” explains Jim White, R.D., ACSM Health Fitness Specialist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.
Our bodies need protein for:
- Cell formation
- Tissue-building (including organs and muscles)
- Tissue repair and healing
- Fluid balance
- Hormone and enzyme production
Amino acids, the compounds that make up protein, are literally the building blocks for every cell in our body, White says. Since we can’t produce certain amino acids on our own, we have to get them by eating protein.
Not to mention, protein (which requires more energy to digest and absorb than carbs and fats) helps us feel satiated throughout the day.
How Much Protein The Average Adult Needs
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is actually quite low—just 0.8 kilograms of protein per pound of bodyweight, which comes out to about 55 grams of protein a day for the average 150-pound adult.
However, this amount isn’t optimal—just the bare minimum you need to avoid major health consequences.
In fact, depending activity level, muscle mass, and fitness goals, many adults can benefit from upping their protein intake far beyond the RDA. “Some research suggests that recreational athletes should aim for 1.1 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day,” White says. That’s 75 to 95 grams of protein per day for that 150-pound person.
Active people often have larger appetites and greater protein needs both for satiety and muscle tissue repair, White says. Eating more protein is also crucial for anyone who wants to build more muscle mass.
To meet your protein needs, dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, M.A., R.D.N., C.D.N., recommends filling a quarter of your plate with protein at every meal. (Same goes for snacks!)
Who Else Needs Extra Protein?
In addition to frequent gym-goers, pregnant women also need extra protein in order to adequately nourish their growing fetus, Taub-Dix says.
Others who need additional protein: Anyone fighting off an illness or who has to repair tissues after surgery or an injury.
The Importance Of Protein As We Age
Though we think of protein as a nice-to-have fitness-booster in our younger years, it becomes a matter of survival as we age.
“Inadequate protein intake later in life can lead to age-related muscle loss and function (called sarcopenia),” says White. It also contributes to decreases in skeletal integrity (think osteoporosis) and immune function.
Though sarcopenia, which affects our metabolism, strength, and everyday mobility, typically becomes a serious concern for adults 65 and older, Taub-Dix says progressive muscle loss can begin as early as age 50.
This loss of muscle—along with weakened bones and immunity—puts older adults at risk for all sorts of health issues, including:
- fractures and other injuries
- impaired wound healing
- loss of skin elasticity
- more frequent illness
- feelings of fatigue or weakness
As our ability to build and maintain muscle declines, eating ample protein becomes all-the-more important for our health and quality of life, says Taub-Dix.
In fact, “Studies have concluded that higher protein intake helps high-functioning, middle-aged U.S. adults—and particularly women—maintain physical function,” White says. “Findings have also associated higher protein intake in older adults with better walking and climbing ability and prevention of disability.”
How Much Proteins Older Adults Need
To promote healthy muscle mass and other body functions, aging adults need continuously more protein than their younger counterparts.
“We think our nutritional needs stay the same throughout our older years, but our protein needs actually increase,” says Taub-Dix.
Taub-Dix suggests adults middle-aged and older shoot for 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. (That’s 81 to 102 grams a day for a 150-pound person).
An easy way to break that down: Aim for at least 25 to 30 grams of protein at every meal, says White.
A few ways to up the protein in any snack or meal:
- Add nut butter or cottage cheese to oatmeal
- Stir nuts into yogurts, salads, cereals, and vegetable side dishes
- Add cheese to eggs or sandwiches
- Mix ground meat into pasta
- Add chickpeas to salads and vegetable side dishes
If you’re struggling to meet your protein needs through whole foods alone, consider adding protein powder to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, or baked recipes.