There is some interesting research coming out of McMaster University regarding muscle mass and seniors. The old saying ‘use it or lose it’ holds true but there is another aspect that is often forgotten…nutrition.
Muscle is constantly breaking down and rebuilding (as are other tissues in our body). As we get older this process of tissue breakdown and rebuilding becomes unbalanced with the net result being muscle loss. A cross section of a muscle that has lost significant mass will show a thick layer of fat around the muscle and a marbling of fat throughout.
When we eat protein this triggers a muscle building phase. More specifically it is the amino acid leucine found in protein such as meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts and dairy that seems to be the trigger. Leucine is an essential amino acid meaning that the body can’t make it, it has to be obtained from food.
In seniors research is showing that a greater amount of leucine is required to trigger a muscle building phase.
For a younger adult 20g of protein 4x a day is sufficient to maintain muscle mass. For a senior more daily protein needs to be consumed. For all ages it is best to stagger protein intake throughout the day – every time you eat. To get a better idea of what this may look like per meal, 30g of protein is a serving of meat, poultry or fish slightly bigger than a deck of cards. Or approximately 1 cup of legumes + 2 oz cheese.
For some this amount of protein a day is challenging but it can be done, especially if the daily amount of starchy carbohydrates are reduced (bread, pasta, rice, potato, crackers, cereal). The typical North American eats too much starchy carbohydrates, especially the processed ones, leading to blood sugar problems and hormonal imbalances.
Protein powder may also be an option if significant amounts of protein cannot be consumed, for example a protein shake for breakfast or as a snack.
Exercise also triggers muscle building even if it is just walking. The research is showing that walking helps sensitise the muscle to protein in the diet.
Resistance training is also important for muscle building. Keep in mind that a senior needs to consume more protein after exercise to help maximize muscle building from resistance training, approximately 40g instead of the recommended 20g for a younger adult. This dose can be divided into two sittings, a meal or snack immediately after the workout and then another meal or snack a couple of hours later.
To summarize here is a recommended protein complete meal plan for a senior.
Breakfast = Protein shake or oatmeal + berries with milk + protein powder (whey or pea protein)
Lunch = 1 full can of tuna on a green, leafy salad with olive oil & apple cider vinegar
Snack = Yogurt (full fat), a small handful of nuts, or a protein shake
Dinner = 4 – 6 oz of meat or poultry + vegetables