Macronutrients are exactly that. Nutrients that are needed in macro (larger) amounts for our bodies to thrive. We need carbohydrates for energy, we need fat for energy and to support hormonal health (and more) and we need protein for most functions in the body. A number of years ago, protein and ageing got a bit of a bad rap; studies carried out in those already suffering with renal issues suggested that a high protein diet contributed to kidney failure. Like many studies, the data wasn’t in context, but it resulted in many people opting for low-protein diets.
We thought we’d take a look at protein needs after 40 and why you probably need to eat more than you think.
What is Protein?
The word protein comes from the Greek meaning “of prime importance” and it really is. Protein is the building blocks of the body.
When we eat sources of protein like chicken, beef or eggs they are broken down in the stomach and then reassembled by the liver to form new proteins which carry out a range of jobs throughout the body.
First up, we have structural proteins which are key components of hair, skin, nails, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. This is why signs of low protein include dry skin, brittle hair or muscle weakness. We need protein to develop as a baby, but on the other side of the scale, we need sufficient protein intake to maintain our structure as we age.
Proteins are also crucial to immune system function – many different immune cells like antibodies are made up of protein. Antibodies are those cells that latch on to harmful invaders and remove them. So if we want a well-functioning immune system, we need protein.
Whilst we know that protein is necessary for muscle growth, we often forget that it’s needed for muscle function too. Different proteins are involved in muscle contraction and relaxation; in short, protein ensures a muscle moves when it needs to.
Proteins also play a role in oxygen and nutrient transport around the body and they are key players in many different reactions including energy production – again, this is why fatigue may be a sign of low protein intake.
Types of Protein
Proteins are built up of amino acids. It is these amino acids that are rearranged and sent throughout the body to carry out their various roles.
Although hundreds of amino acids exist in nature, there are some which are commonly found as protein components. They are classified as either essential or non-essential.
Essential amino acids cannot be synthesised by the body so must be supplied by the diet. Non-essential amino acids, whilst still critical to bodily processes, can be synthesised within the body (when it is healthy).
There are 9 essential amino acids, and you may be familiar with some of them.
Tryptophan is commonly known for making us feel sleepy due to its role in creating serotonin, but it’s also needed for normal growth and the production and maintenance of muscles, enzymes, and other chemical messengers throughout the body.
Another essential amino acid is histidine, and this amino acid can be converted to histamine. Histamine is involved in the immune response to allergens, which is why we take antihistamines when hay fever season hits. But histidine also plays a role in the growth and repair of tissues.
There are 12 non-essential amino acids, and the body can synthesise these itself.
A protein is assessed on its completeness – if any of the essential amino acids are missing, it loses points. Complete proteins include foods like red meat, chicken, fish, seafood, milk, cheese, and yogurt. Eggs are known as the reference protein as they contain all the necessary amino acids. Incomplete proteins include nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Whilst they contain some amino acids, they need to be complemented with other protein sources to hit the mark.
Why Do We Need Protein After 40?
As you have likely gathered, proteins are used throughout the body for a number of functions, and they are crucial to health. But as you will know, as we age, we start to lose muscle mass. This process is termed sarcopenia. Moderate protein intake has been seen to slow or prevent muscle breakdown.
This process is slowed further when moderate protein intake is paired with resistance training.
How Much Protein Do I Need To Eat?
The general guideline for protein intake is 1g of protein per kg of body weight for sedentary individuals.
But recent data is suggesting that the sweet spot for more active individuals is 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight.
Try to have a steady intake of protein throughout the day, aiming for good portions at mealtimes. You can also opt for protein rich snacks in between meals if you are struggling to hit your target.
Should I Be Worried About Increasing My Protein Intake?
If you have existing kidney or liver issues, you’ll likely be under the guidance of a dietician, so speak with them before making any dietary changes. For the generally healthy individual, take it slow and increase steadily. There is some data indicating that excess protein intake can result in fermentation in the gut releasing less than desirable compounds, but this is usually mitigated when protein is paired with generous servings of fibre! The take home? Pair your chicken breast with some leafy greens and sweet potatoes!
You don’t have to worry about protein shakes unless you find them an easy way to increase your intake. We advocate a food-first approach wherever possible but that’s not to say you can’t get creative with your protein shakes if you want too though.
Thanks for reading,