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Published on March 26, 2018

Feeling weak? Include protein at all mealsFeeling weak? Include protein at all meals

Most people assume that muscle mass – and therefore strength – fades as we grow older, but a new study shows that with a little dietary care, we can slow this deterioration of muscle and strength.

A study conducted at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) shows that an effort to distribute protein consumption over all three meals helps to preserve muscle mass and strength as we age.

The study highlights the importance of protein in your diet, no matter your age or physical condition, said Tracy Warren, a clinical dietician in Cape Cod Hospital’s Nutrition Therapy department, agrees.

“Protein is needed for muscle maintenance growth and a strong immune system. We should all be including adequate protein at each meal,” she said.

“Many seniors, especially in North America, consume the majority of their daily protein intake at lunch and dinner,” said Dr. Stephanie Chevalier, the lead author of the study and a scientist with the Metabolic Disorders and Complications Program at RI-MUHC, in a September 7, 2017 article in McGill Reporter. “We wanted to see if people who added protein sources to breakfast, and therefore had balanced protein intake through the three meals, had greater muscle strength.”

To answer this question, Dr. Chevalier and her researchers analyzed data from a five-year longitudinal study conducted in Quebec. The study, referred to as NuAge (Nutrition as a Determinant of Successful Aging), features data collected from nearly 1,800 women and men aged 67 to 84 years.

Looking at variables like strength and muscle mass, Chevalier’s team used data about dietary intake to establish a connection between when daily protein was consumed and how much strength and muscle mass was either lost or preserved.

Dr. Samaneh Farsijani, the first author of Chevalier’s study, explained the results this way: “We observed that participants of both sexes who consumed protein in a balanced way during the day had more muscle strength than those who consumed more during the evening meal and less at breakfast.”

Most people do not include adequate protein at breakfast, Warren said.

“Your typical American breakfast meal usually contains more carbohydrates then protein – cereals, pancakes, waffles, donuts, toast,” she said. “I find that a lot of seniors have your typical ‘tea and toast.’”

How Much Do You Need?

To figure your own protein requirements, Warren suggests a ratio of .4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, a 130-pound woman should get at least 50 grams of protein per day, or 16 grams per meal, while a 180-pound man would need approximately 70 grams of protein (20-25 grams per meal).

To boost their early-day protein intake, Warren suggests a number of different traditional breakfast foods. One egg delivers 7 grams of protein, and if you scramble it or whip it into an omelet, adding an ounce of cheese gives you another 7 grams. An 8-ounce glass of milk will deliver 8 grams of protein, and if you add a tablespoon of peanut butter to your morning toast you’re getting a boost of 7 to 10 grams of protein.

Warren also preaches the protein-delivery value of lean meat at any meal, such as chicken or fish.

“There are about 7 grams of protein in 1 ounce of cooked meat. So, for example, 4 ounces of raw boneless skinless chicken breast yields about 3 ounces of cooked chicken, or 21 g of protein.”

If, however, you lean toward a more vegetarian diet, Warren says it’s possible with planning to find what you need.

“Good sources of plant proteins include tofu, soybeans, lentils, nuts and peanut butter.”

Protein is a major building block in the growth and repair of muscle and other tissue, but that’s not where its importance ends. Warren cites the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics when she says, “Protein also assists the body in fighting infection, generating hormones and forming enzymes.”

Eating adequate protein in the morning may help you from overeating the rest of the day.

“You feel fuller and remain full for a longer period of time when you eat protein in the morning than you do when you eat only cereal or toast,” she said.

Another great reason to add protein to your morning meal is that it improves cognitive function, Warren said

“The sustaining effects of protein include more energy plus better focus and concentration. You will likely be more efficient with your tasks and accomplish more when you have included protein in your morning meal.”

If you’re looking for authoritative information about how best to add protein to your diet, Warren recommends the USDA website choosemyplate.gov.