Protein: it’s not just for dinner anymore

[photo used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics]

When it comes to protein, I see two different attitudes:

  1. Protein isn’t that big a deal. We get “enough”, no need to focus on it.
  2. We need to gorge on protein all day, every day. You can’t get too much.

Both are wrong. And for us older adults — men and women — more than the officially “adequate” daily intake may indeed be better. The reason is sarcopenia, the gradual loss of muscle mass associated with aging. It seems to happen no matter what, even if you stay active, challenging your muscles to maintain mass. Loss of muscle mass leads to many potentially serious health problems:

  • Frailty, which increases risk for falls and debilitating injuries
  • Lack of fitness which impacts quality of life
  • Weakness, which impacts balance and ability to perform simple daily tasks

Who needs any of that? So maintaining muscle mass, or at least minimizing the effects of sarcopenia should be a priority. According to a recent webinar, eating more than the official recommended daily protein — 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight, or 0.37 grams per pound body weight — is a good idea. The webinar speaker, who studies the effects of protein intake on muscle synthesis, recommends 1.2 – 1.6 grams protein/kilogram body weight per day.

For a normal weight range woman who weighs around 140 lbs, that’s 76 to 101 grams per day. A mixed diet that includes some meat, eggs and dairy foods can easily provide 76 grams of protein. Eating the higher amount might take more attention to high protein foods.

There’s another important point: you should not eat all or most of that protein at one meal. It should be spread a evenly as possible throughout the day to maximize protein utilization. Lumping it all in the evening, as many of us do, is not a great idea. That means breakfast needs to be higher in protein than many of us are used to: 20 – 30 grams total.

I’m the first to admit I don’t adhere to these recommendations every day. And, yes, morning is the hardest time to push protein. Give me some toast and fresh fruit and I’m done. Low protein! But after listening to this webinar, I’m more inspired to come up with strategies to include more protein.

Traditional high protein breakfast foods include eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese and perhaps nut butters. Sausages and bacon have some protein, but can’t be considered particularly ‘good’ sources. For example, you’d have to eat 480 calories of bacon (about 6 slices) to get 30 grams of protein. Compare that to eggs: you get 30 grams of protein from about 300 calories (about 5 medium eggs). Still, it’s unlikely that you’d eat 5 eggs at once, let alone every morning.

Some people might be happy to eat 6 slices of bacon but they’d also be getting a big dose of saturated fat and sodium. So it’s not just about the protein content of a food. It’s about what else is in that food and how much you could or would eat at any one time.

Foods with the most protein bang for the calorie (and volume) buck are meats and fish. 3 oz of cooked meat or fish provides 22-25 grams of protein. The rest of your breakfast foods can easily fill out the remaining amount. Bread and cereals have some protein, as do potatoes and other vegetables. For example, a burrito with cheese, refried beans and ground meat will have protein from the:

  • tortilla
  • meat (or 2 scrambled eggs)
  • cheese
  • beans
  • vegetables/potatoes

Older women who follow a vegan or more restrictive vegetarian diet will have more trouble getting significant protein at any meal, let alone breakfast. High protein plant foods are bulky, so it’s hard to consume large amounts at any one time. Could you eat 3 cups cooked quinoa at one meal? Every morning? Or 11 oz tofu? That’s almost a whole package! Or 1/2 cup peanut butter? That’s almost 800 calories of peanut butter!

Even dairy foods must be consumed in considerable amounts. Could you drink 3-4 glasses of milk at one meal? Or eat 4 oz of cheese? 4 cups of yogurt? The only two dairy foods that could work are cottage cheese (1 cup has about 26 grams protein) or Greek style yogurt (1 cup nonfat has about 20 grams protein).

The Take Away: Eating even 20 grams of protein at breakfast can be problematic for many women, let alone 30 grams. What to do? First, don’t think of this goal as ‘All Or Nothing‘. Find ways to include more protein, even if the amounts are less. If your typical morning meal is high carb/low protein, add an egg or a small container of yogurt. Make it Greek style yogurt to boost protein. If you like meat or fish, include those. A burger for breakfast? Why not? Smoked salmon, tuna salad or melted cheese on your toast? Great. Make a quesadilla with cheese and beans. Make an omelet — 2 eggs plus an ounce of cheese is about 18-19 grams of protein. Top your oatmeal with Greek style yogurt and chopped nuts. If you’re into smoothies, add protein powder; either whey or soy are good options.

Research shows other benefits of eating more protein early in the day:

  • improves muscle mass and functional strength
  • decreases evening food cravings
  • improves appetite control and satiety through the day, which can lead to decreased calorie intake, a boon for weight control
  • improves glycemic control at the next meal, which is good for diabetics

Sarcopenia is not to be taken lightly. You need to challenge muscles to maintain mass with daily activity, and you need to give muscles the building blocks to do that by eating enough protein. This is one reason I do not recommend vegan diets to older women. Plant foods are bulky. It’s physically difficult to fit the necessary volume of plant foods into your stomach to achieve a higher protein intake. Animal foods — meat, fish, eggs, dairy — add quality protein at low volumes. You don’t need huge portions. A simple 3-4 oz piece of meat is sufficient.

Preserving muscle mass is good for quality of life. And quality of life is important, so I’m going to make the effort to improve my morning protein.