Ageing with attitude: Pack regular protein in three times a day to prevent muscle decline

Margaret Jennings says from our 50s onwards getting protein in our diets is crucial to prevent muscle decline.

EATING protein is one way to stave off muscle decline as we age, especially if we also build up our physical strength with exercises.

From a dietary perspective, however, research suggests that from our 50s onwards we should eat protein three times a day, a conclusion that was drawn even more recently from a three-year study of people aged 67 to 84.

The Canadian study found that among the men and women who all had muscle decline, those who had eaten protein evenly throughout the day had greater muscle strength — though not greater mobility, than other participants.

Although no absolute direct cause and effect can be drawn until further research is done, it’s a view supported by Paula Mee, consultant dietician and member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI).

“For increased muscle mass and strength the research to date suggests we would benefit by spreading protein throughout meals over the day, as opposed to eating little or none at breakfast, some at lunch and a main protein at dinner,” she tells Feelgood.

“For example a 60kg 55-year-old woman would be better having two scrambled eggs (12g) for breakfast; 85g Greek yoghurt (5g) with 14g chopped nuts (3g) for mid-morning break; 70g half a tin of tuna (19g) for lunch and a small skinless breast of chicken, at dinner (20g). That’s as opposed to tea and one thin slice of white toast (2g) for breakfast; a boiled egg at lunch (6g) and a large chicken breast (64g) at dinner,” she says.

According to the Health Service Executive (HSE) guideline for older adults, we should choose any two of the following each day: 2oz cooked lean meat or poultry; 3oz cooked fish; two eggs (not more than seven per week); six tablespoons cooked peas/beans; 2oz cheddar type cheese or 3oz nuts.

The health authority says that each choice recommended in the above lists is the equivalent of one serving, with an average portion of meat, fish or poultry about the size of a small pork chop.

Mee says that we should emphasise high quality, leucine-rich protein sources such as egg white, soya beans, sea vegetables, chicken, turkey and fish.

And that we should aim for a minimum intake daily of 1g for every kg of our bodyweight, for healthy ageing: “More is needed though, if an older person is ill or malnourished. For acute or chronic illness that should be increased to 1.2-1.5g of protein per kg a day and for severely ill or malnourished up to 2g per kg bodyweight.”

While older people probably generally associate protein intake with eating meat, poultry and fish, what about the vegetarians among us? “There are plenty of vegetarian options but fewer vegan. It’s harder to meet your protein needs, but it can be done,” she says.

The dietician gives the following food suggestions with portion size, for maintaining our intake throughout the day, so that we can minimise muscle loss, which contributes towards frailty as we age.

The protein measures are written in bold, so that you can easily see if you are getting the appropriate amount of grams for your bodyweight daily from whatever food group you choose.

However it’s also important we follow the World Health Organisation’s exercise guidelines which advise that we carry out muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, on two or more days a week.

And of course in addition to watching our intake of protein, ensuring that our diet is otherwise balanced and nutritious so we can live a long and healthy life.

As the countdown to Christmas approaches, and diet can go haywire don’t forget to keep that daily protein balance going.

MEAT: Beef, fillet steak, grilled, lean, 2 slices (105g), 31g protein; Chicken breast, grilled meat only, 1 breast (130g), 42g protein; Turkey, light meat, roasted, 2 slices (140g), 47g protein.

FISH: Cod, poached, 1 fillet (120g) 25g protein; Mackerel, grilled, 1 fillet (150g), 31g protein; Tuna, canned, in brine, 1 small tin (100g) 24g protein.

VEGETARIAN: Cheese, cheddar, 1 thick slice (40g), 10g protein; Cottage Cheese, 1 small carton (112g), 14g protein; Skim Milk, 1 glass (200ml), 7g protein; Low-fat yogurt, plain, 1 carton (150g), 7g protein; Low-fat yogurt, fruit, 1 carton (150g), 6g protein; Fromage frais, fruit, 1 small carton (100g), 5g protein; Eggs 1, size 2, 8g protein.

VEGAN: Peanuts, roasted and salted, 1 handful (50g), 13g protein; Peanut butter, On 1 slice bread (20g), 5g protein; Cashew nuts, roasted and salted, 1 handful (50g), 10g protein; Walnuts, 1 handful (50g), 7g protein; Sunflower seeds, 2 tbsps (32g), 6g protein; Sesame seeds, 2 tbsps (24g), 4g protein; Baked beans, 1 small tin (205g), 10g protein; Red lentils, boiled, 3 tbsps (120g), 9g protein; Red kidney beans, boiled, 3 tbsps (120g), 10g protein; Chickpeas, boiled, 3 tbsps (140g), 10g protein; Soya milk, plain, 1 glass (200ml), 5g protein; Soya mince, 2 tbsp, dry (30g), 13g protein; Tofu, Half pack (100g), 8g protein; Tofu burger, 1 burger (60g), 5g protein.


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