What a protein rich meal – eggs, beans and cheese! These are naturally protein rich foods. However, you may have noticed that extra protein is also being added to many foods – breakfast cereals, chocolate bars and snack bars to name a few. Protein is certainly having its moment in the spotlight and getting some great PR. Protein is an important nutrient. We need protein to maintain our muscles, bones and immune system. But do we need these protein enriched foods?
In general, if we are eating a mixed and varied diet, we can get enough protein without protein-enriched products. In fact, many of us get much more protein than we need. Foods such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, pulses and nuts are protein rich. Protein can be found in smaller amounts in cereals, grains and some vegetables. If we eat more than we need, we cannot store protein. Eat more protein than you can use then it will be used as energy.
Adults over 65 is one group that may benefit from protein enriched foods. We often see muscle loss in older adults that results in loss of strength and an increase in frailty. This subsequently can have a huge impact on quality of life. Muscle loss is thought to be a product of slowly getting less active as we get older and appetites getting smaller which affects protein intakes. As we cannot store protein, if we do not consume enough protein to meet our essential protein needs, the body will release protein from muscles to meet these needs.
Added to this, there is a debate on whether ageing causes protein to be used less efficiently so increasing the amount of protein needed. The jury is out. Either way, can protein intake be the key to maintaining muscle and strength as we get older?
Findings from the world of sports nutrition may help answer that question. It seems that muscles are more effective at using protein to repair and rebuild directly after activity. Spreading protein intake throughout the day, rather than having one protein rich meal, is also better for muscles. This seems to be true not just in athletes but also in older adults. And so, two simple things we can do to eat protein in a smarter way and help maintain muscles are:
- Eating protein rich foods soon after any physical activity. This doesn’t have to be sport. Any activity that gets you working your muscles, it could be gardening, walking, cycling, seated resistance exercises, dancing etc.
- Spreading protein intake throughout the day. So include some protein rich foods at every meal and eat snacks that provide protein helps to do this.
There are plenty of naturally protein rich foods that taste good. Baked beans or scrambled eggs on toast, a small chunk of cheese, a handful of nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, yoghurt and hummus with crackers are just a few ideas for a protein rich snack or light meal. For some people, foods enriched with protein can be helpful, especially when unwell and not eating much. Illness increases the need for protein but can reduce appetite and activity, as a result can increase muscle loss.
It is important to recognise that you are eating less, something that happens quite gradually and is completely normal as we get older. It may be time to adjust the way you eat. Eating a bigger meal at a different time of day or having smaller meals but including a couple of snacks. And, of course, ensuring that you include protein rich foods throughout the day.
If you find you are losing weight unintentionally do have a chat about it with your doctor. Often this weight loss is a sign that you may not be eating quite enough to keep you healthy and some of the weight lost is coming from muscles. Weight loss can also be a symptom of another problem that requires treatment.
This is general advice and should not replace advice from your doctor. If you have a health issue or take medication and you want to make a big change to the way you eat then do discuss it with your doctor first.
(Adapted from an article written for Life & Style, the residents magazine for FirstPort Retirement Property Services)