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Over 65? Here’s why you should consider protein powder.

A plastic scoop sitting in protein powder

Many older adults aren’t getting enough protein from food alone. The solution is just a scoop away.

Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas

When it comes to a healthy diet, protein plays a big role. In fact, every cell in your body contains protein. It helps you build (and keep) your muscle and bone mass. And it even helps you heal from injuries.

But many older adults aren’t getting enough protein in their diets. In fact, research from Ohio State University found that nearly half of adults age 70 and older should be consuming more protein.

The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. That’s 55 grams if you weigh 150 pounds, 65 grams if you weigh 180 pounds and so on. These are the numbers recommended for the general population, and many older adults don’t meet them.

But the problem is actually bigger than it seems, because many researchers believe that the RDAs are too low for older adults. They argue that protein needs increase with age.

“The general consensus is that the RDA is too low for older people,” says Stuart Phillips, PhD. He’s the director of McMaster University’s Centre of Excellence in the Department of Kinesiology in Ontario, Canada.

So if you’re an older adult, what should you aim for? Some experts recommend that adults age 65 and older get at least 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. At the high end, that’s 82 grams a day for a 150-pound person and 98 grams for a 180-pound person.

What does that look like in food form? To get 82 grams of protein, you’d have to eat a 3-ounce chicken breast, 2 eggs, 1 cup of yogurt, half a cup of black beans, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and an ounce of pumpkin seeds.

That’s a lot to pack into a day. And that’s where protein powder can help.

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Why do older adults need more protein?

As you age, your body has a harder time using the building blocks of protein, called amino acids, to maintain muscle mass (and do all those other important tasks). That means you may lose strength and struggle to recover from injury and illness.

“Starting at about age 40, we lose both muscle mass and muscle strength if we’re not physically active,” says Christine Rosenbloom, PhD. She’s a dietitian, retired Georgia State University professor and coauthor of Food & Fitness After 50. It’s the “use it or lose it” principle. And it’s tied to a higher risk of falls and loss of function.

But you can help your body out by giving it more amino acids to work with. Eating protein keeps your body supplied. For example, a 2018 study of more than 700 older adults found that those who ate the most protein were less likely to have mobility issues than those who ate the least.

Your job: Stay as active as possible and focus on filling your plate with more high-quality protein sources.

Related reading: How weight training improves your life.

How to get more protein

An obvious way to get more protein is to simply eat more high-protein foods, such as meat, beans, yogurt and nuts. But that can be hard to do, especially as we age.

Older people tend to have less of an appetite, and they might also have less energy to cook, says Leslie Bonci. She’s a registered dietitian and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. And tastes can change, too. “Some older adults report that protein can leave a metallic or bitter taste in their mouth that’s made worse by medications,” Bonci adds.

If a food-first approach doesn’t work for you, a protein powder can be a helpful supplement. These powders are usually made from soy or whey, and they have about 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving. They can be mixed into smoothies, cereal, oatmeal, soups and casseroles.

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Generally speaking, these are some good guidelines for choosing a powder:

  • Whey and soy proteins are both good options. Whey protein has low levels of lactose and seems to do the best job of getting amino acids into skeletal muscle, Bonci says. Soy is a complete plant protein and a good choice for people who don’t eat dairy.
  • Protein powder flavors can range from sweet to neutral. Pick one that suits your tastes. “I’m partial to unflavored protein that can be added to a pasta sauce, soups, oatmeal, pudding or rice,” says Bonci.
  • Supplements, including protein powders, aren’t reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make sure they’re safe or effective. Because of this, Phillips recommends looking for certifications from third-party testers, such as the NSF, on the label. “It’s a quality assurance that it’s made by a company that cares and that the powder has been batch tested,” he says.

The bottom line: Protein powders aren’t meant to replace meals, says Phillips. But if you’re having a hard time eating enough high-protein foods, they could be the key to staying healthy and active in the long run.

When in doubt about what’s right for you, reach out to your health care team. And don’t forget to grab your free pharmacy discount card. It could help you save up to 80% on the prescription medications you need most.


Additional sources
Study on protein intake in older adults: The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging (2019). “Low dietary protein intakes and associated dietary patterns and functional limitations in an aging population: A NHANES analysis”
Low protein intake and difficulty climbing steps: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2018). “Protein intake and disability trajectories in very old adults: The Newcastle 85+ study”