Protein is a must to promote muscle growth and health in later life

In Ireland, people are living longer and, with the demise of the Celtic Tiger, many people are having to work past pensionable age.

Whether you hope to relax and enjoy the later chapters of your life, or continue working, you need to be fit and healthy.

Our health is our most valuable asset and investing in it is the best investment we can make. Food is the fuel for our bodies and a good diet and some exercise are essential for good health.

As we get older, we lose muscle mass and we are not as robust, explaining how we may notice that our parents become smaller as they age. This muscle loss is a natural phenomenon known as Sarcopenia and it is thought to affect 30% of individuals over 60 years old and more than 50% of those over 80 years old. It contributes to frailty and loss of independence, and increases the risk of falls and fractures, thereby threatening healthy ageing.

Sarcopenia is more commonly seen in people who do not perform regular exercise and in those who do not consume adequate levels of high quality protein in their diet. The balance between the rate of muscle protein synthesis (growth) and muscle protein breakdown (loss) in our body determines whether we gain, maintain, or lose muscle in response to many factors such as exercise, nutrition and disease. 

Sarcopenia is caused by a combination of factors, such as a lower rate of protein synthesis in older muscle, a reduced growth response to nutrients such as protein, and/or increased muscle breakdown due to disease or inactivity. If we could maintain muscle mass, we could slow down the ageing process and a healthy diet will achieve this. One of the secrets to holding onto our physical fitness is to include high quality protein in our diet and take a modest amount of exercise.

Many studies have shown that older people can increase their muscle mass with regular physical activity, especially resistance-based strength exercise. Numerous studies have also shown the ability of high quality protein to stimulate muscle growth and to reduce muscle loss in ageing people.

Furthermore, consuming 20g-30g protein during each meal can also maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis in younger people and some studies show that an additional 20% may be required to deliver this effect in older people. Recent studies highlight the importance of ingesting a sufficient amount of protein with every meal, as opposed to the common pattern in the Western diet, where little protein is eaten at breakfast and lunch and a lot is eaten at dinner. 

Combined with exercise, an even distribution of 20-30g protein at each meal is thought to be optimal for developing or maintaining muscle and contributing to healthy ageing. In total, the average middle-aged adult should be aiming for 80-100g protein per day.

Beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and dairy products are all quality sources of protein that contain essential amino acids (building blocks for protein), that the body needs to build and repair muscle and thus manage or delay the onset of Sarcopenia.

Paddy Wall, associate professor of Public Health, School of Public Health, UCD, says: “The old adages ‘your health is your wealth’ and ‘you are what you eat’ are still as true as ever. Many people only start to pay attention to diet and exercise after they have a health scare, but prevention is far better than cure.

“For many of us, if we pay attention to diet and exercise, chronological age will become irrelevant and 60 will be the new 30 and 90 the new 60.”


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