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We are often mistaken in the belief that our diet should align with our activity level. We love to diet when we’re training and binge when we aren’t. This polarity leaves us at each end of the healthy vs unhealthy scale.

Whether you’re lifting weights every day, going for light walks or just looking to trim your waistline, you’re going to require additional proteins to keep you healthy. This is especially important if you’re over 50.

This might be surprising news, but recent studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to stay youthful and avoid fat gain is to get enough protein daily. The correct intake amount is closer to two times the U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 g/kg of body weight a day.

Calculate your protein goal and hit it daily

Research shows us that the more protein people eat, the higher the rate of muscle protein synthesis. This fact alone is so important because the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks that the body uses to synthesise muscle, it causes a positive environment for muscle development.

The right amount to eat is between 25-30 grams in one meal, which will maximally stimulate protein synthesis in older adults. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that you’re eating this much at each meal and reaching your protein intake goal daily.

Another positive effect of having high-protein meals, especially breakfast, is to reduce hunger and manage blood sugar better for easier control over cravings and metabolism. This is key since aging is associated with blood sugar problems and insulin resistance, thus anything you can do to counter this debilitating effect is worthwhile.

Stay lean: understanding why protein synthesis matters

Some people may wonder if muscle really matters, and might be concerned about looking “too big” but at the same time want to lose weight and be healthy.

Optimal health for older people primarily depends on maintaining muscle mass, which requires greater than the minimal amount of protein. Once over the age of 50, the body naturally loses muscle mass and bone density due to anabolic resistance. This means that older people experience changes in digestion so that their bodies absorb fewer amino acids.

As we get older we also start to move less and don't lift as many heavy things, which means that our muscles and bones experience less physical stimulus to grow and stay strong. In as little as two weeks, people who decrease their daily physical activity have been shown to have lower leg muscle mass and experience a reduced muscle building response to a high-protein meal.

Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) has shown that inactive people who eat the RDA of protein can lose as much as 5 percent of muscle mass per decade after age 30. This has an incredibly negative effect on resting metabolic rate, which when reduced, leads to fat gain over time.

The greatest loss of muscle mass comes from fast-twitch muscle fibers in the lower body, which is your centre for power, balance, and strength.

Muscle and bone are inextricably linked: decreasing muscle strength leads to a weak, vulnerable skeletal system; a reason bone fractures are common in the elderly.

Eat protein, and lift weights

If you’re looking at optimising your health and keeping lean, understand that what eating protein does for protein synthesis, lifting weights does for building muscle.

Studies show that even for the elderly, increasing protein on weight training days, they are able to build muscle to a similar degree as young people. Overall, they added lean muscle mass and increased physical performance.

Experts are still looking to understand the optimal protein dose for older people, however, evidence is pointing to between 1.2 and 1.8 g/kg

Eat the highest quality proteins

If you’re trying to understand what 1.6 g/kg of food equates to, let’s give an example here:

If you weigh 165 pounds, that’s 120g daily. A rough diet would be:

  • two eggs for breakfast (12g),
  • chicken or beef for lunch (30 g per 4 oz. serving),
  • salmon for dinner (20 g per 4 oz. serving),
  • Greek yogurt as a snack (25 g per 8 oz.),
  • whey protein post-workout (25 g), with protein from nuts, seeds, and vegetables making up the rest.

This diet showcases a good mixture of rapidly digesting protein sources such as whey protein and yogurt, as well as more slowly digested sources from whole meats. Whole meat is very useful for satiety, whereas fast-digesting protein has been shown to limit protein losses in older people and is easier to digest, especially applicable to older folks who may chew less.

One thing that these high protein foods have in common, is that they all originate from animal sources, containing all the essential amino acids your body needs for maximal muscle building. Animal proteins are generally well digested if chewed properly and aid in healthy gut function - neither of which is given for older folks. Therefore, it’s also important to place emphasis on chewing food well before swallowing.

Vegetarian sources of protein such as seeds and beans

Getting sufficient levels of amino acids such as leucine, which is the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis, is difficult to gain from purely vegetarian sources. Some vegetable sources do contain leucine, but the concentration is tiny compared to whey protein or eggs.

Additionally, the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources from beans, grains, and plants as efficiently as animal proteins. This means that an even higher total protein intake is needed to achieve the same physiological effects.

This can be almost impossible for the elderly, especially if they have a reduced appetite or need to manage calorie intake in order to lose body fat. Therefore, it makes the most sense for all older people to include fish, dairy, and whey protein in their diet frequently for optimal body composition and health.

Therefore, by increasing your protein intake and making it a priority in your daily meals, you will feel an immediate effect. Favour complete protein sources and try to achieve at least 25 grams of protein per meal. Engage in full body workouts at least twice a week and have a whey protein shake post-workout for better recovery. You will not only feel satisfied and less distracted by food but will start building muscle and feeling healthy.

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