Eat Well to Be Well: Protein’s the power in preventing sarcopenia

Sarcopenia – a funny sounding word for a condition that over 50 percent of people age 80 and older currently have. This word was coined in 1989 by a Dr. Irwin H. Rosenberg and is defined as the involuntary, gradual loss of muscle mass and strength as we age.

All of us are at risk and the effects of sarcopenia can be devastating – increased falls and fractures, frailty, difficulty with walking, decrease in activities and a loss of physical function and independence. This progressive condition can begin as early as age 30 and can reduce muscle tissue by 3-8 percent per decade. The muscle we lose as we age is slowly being replaced with fat, even if body weight remains unchanged.

Think you can’t spot sarcopenia? It’s easy if you know what to look for. As the muscles weaken and get smaller, we have more difficulties in lifting heavy objects, walking far distances, reaching for something on a high shelf, bending over to pick objects up and a decline in stamina. And we just simply lose our muscle tone. Where we once enjoyed flexing muscles we could see, now they have gotten, well … flabby!

So, is it inevitable we’re doomed to get sarcopenia? Thankfully the answer is no! Today, become proactive in preserving as much muscle mass as possible as you age. The earlier you start, the more likely you can maintain adequate muscle mass to be able to enjoy an active lifestyle well into old age.

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There are two ways to do this. One is to exercise, primarily doing resistance training or lifting weights two to three times a week. Exercise is beneficial to help to slow down muscle loss and keeping you moving. If lifting weights is new to you, work with a trainer who can help you start with appropriate poundage of weights and movements. Weight training will help with weight management and improve bone health, reducing your risk of osteoporosis and reduce muscle wasting.

The second way is through nutrition, namely protein. Obtaining adequate protein will preserve and maintain our muscle mass the most. However, the vast majority of people in the United States are not protein deficient. If that’s the case, why are still so many people vulnerable to developing sarcopenia? The reason has to do with a couple of different factors – quality and distribution.

Protein comes from two sources, animal and plants. Animal sources include red meat (beef, pork, lamb), poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods. Plant sources include grains, beans, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Animal sources of protein are high-quality proteins as they contain all of the essential amino acids the body needs to build protein. Therefore you want to include one to two animal sources of protein at each meal to obtain between 25-35 grams of protein per meal.

Studies have shown people consuming adequate high-quality protein lost less lean muscle mass leading to a slower progression of sarcopenia. Plant sources of protein are low-quality protein as they do not contain all of the essential amino acids, but you can still enjoy them as part of your daily diet.

The second factor is distribution of protein. How you distribute your intake of protein throughout the day determines how well your body is able to utilize the protein to help build lean muscle mass. Dr. Douglas Paddon-Jones, a researcher at the University of Texas, shows the difference between an adequate and inadequate protein distribution with the graph below. Part B is typical of how most of us tend to distribute our protein intake over the course of a day. Breakfast usually consists of a little bit of protein, lunch slightly more, but dinner tends to be when we consume the majority of our protein. This uneven distribution of protein throughout the day is not as effective towards protein building or synthesis needed to maintain muscle mass.

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It is more effective to distribute protein intake evenly at each meal like it shows in part A on the graph. This even distribution of protein intake at around 30 grams per meal is better for efficient muscle building and repair, and 30 grams appears to be the optimal amount the body can use at one time. Consuming way above 30 grams is more than the body will use, therefore, any excess amount over that will end up being converted to fat or glucose and not towards muscle synthesis. Essentially, you’re wasting excess protein at a meal. To have adequate protein synthesis occurring in the body, you need to have available essential amino acids throughout the day and not just coming in all at once.

Here is an example of a one-day meal plan containing 30 grams of protein at each meal:

  • Breakfast – 2 slices of whole wheat toast with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 1 banana, and 2 cups low-fat chocolate milk. (30 grams of protein)
  • Lunch – 3 ounces ground turkey patty on a whole grain bun, 1 cheese stick, 1 cup grapes and 1 cup baby carrots. (30 grams of protein)
  • Dinner – 3 ounces of beef steak, 1 baked potato, 2 tablespoons of Greek yogurt and 1 cup steamed broccoli. (30 grams)

It doesn’t take huge amounts of protein to reach 30 grams at each meal. It just takes being more conscientious about planning meals to reach that 30 gram optimal amount.

To sum it up, sarcopenia doesn’t have to happen to you. Be proactive by:

  •  Incorporating exercise and weight lifting to build muscle mass.
  •  Consuming high-quality protein at each meal.
  •  Distributing your protein intake to around 30 grams per meal.

Starting today, outsmart sarcopenia with every weight you lift and bite of protein you eat. Your strong, toned muscles will thank you for that!


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches the course Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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