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Why protein is so important for older adults

As we age, the body's requirement for protein goes up due to chronic age-related issues. Opting for a protein supplement may not be a bad idea, under these circumstances

Most Indians do not eat enough protein
Most Indians do not eat enough protein (Unsplash)

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Shreya Majumder had always led an active life. After she retired from her job as a bank officer in Kolkata, she continued with her routine walks. Around the same time, she decided to give up on non-vegetarian food."All was well initially, but about five months ago, I started feeling a lack of energy. I would be easily exhausted. Even walking up and down the stairs in my two-storeyed house more than once would tire me out," the 59-year-old Salt Lake resident says. She was quick to consult her physician, who diagnosed Majumder with protein deficiency.

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In general, the baseline protein requirement for a healthy adult is in the range of 0.8 to 1 gm per kg body weight per day or higher. Multiple studies over the years have implied that Indians, in general, do not eat enough protein--nearly 70% of us are protein-deficient, suggest these studies. As we age, the impact of our protein-deficient diets really kicks in. Healthy ageing is associated with a physiological reduction in appetite and food intake, the anorexia of ageing, as Anam Golandaz, the clinical dietician at the Masina Hospital, Mumbai, points out."This age-related weight loss, particularly when substantial and involuntary, has been associated with increased mortality." It also means a tendency to eat fewer of the right micro and macronutrients, including protein.

According to medical experts, we lose 30 to 50 per cent of our muscle mass between ages 40 and 80. Also, the body's requirement for protein goes up due to inflammation from chronic age-related infections and other medical problems. Even though people may continue to consume the same amount of protein as they did in their younger years, their ability to process the protein well reduces.

Protein is crucial for muscle repair and regeneration, and therefore, it is advisable for seniors to up their protein intake either naturally or through supplements. It plays an essential role in creating hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters, which our body uses in many ways. Also, at times co-morbidities, injuries, chronic diseases, or surgery in older age raise the need for more protein. Sarcopenia, which occurs when muscle mass and strength decline due to age, is a common ailment among seniors. Like Majumder, even a simple act like climbing stairs can seem like a chore.

Now that we have established the need for protein, the question is, how do we up our dosage of it? Can an extra serving of dal or a soy-based curry twice a week cut it? Not really, say experts. Plant-derived proteins like dal and pseudo-grains like millets also contain carbohydrates, for starters. Also, dals are incomplete proteins and need to be combined with a carbohydrate source to get all nine essential amino acids in the right quantities. While soy, on the other hand, is a complete protein, it also contains antinutrients. 

Animal-based protein derived from meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy may be the better option for older people. If all else fails, a protein supplement, whey or plant-based, may be the only answer. Nutritionist Shweta Shah, the founder of EatFit 24/7, says, "The protein requirement for the elderly is about 1.2-2.0 gm of protein per kg body weight every day. With old age, the elderly may face many health issues like bone hollowness, digestive issues, dentures, arthritis, etc.," she says. She advocates plant-based protein supplements."When taken with digestive enzymes, it becomes smooth to digest and prevents gas and bloating," she points out, adding that this does not mean that you ignore nutrition. She advises incorporating non-supplement proteins in the form of pulses, cottage cheese, soya, nuts and seeds in the diet at every meal. "Making a meal one-third protein-rich is essential," she says.

Also read: When should you include a protein shake in your diet?

If one is opting for a supplement, the best time to take the supplement twice daily, soon after exercise or walking, believes Golandaz. However, since dietary protein impacts renal function, something that declines as we age, it needs to be monitored carefully, she adds. 

In Majumder's case, her physician counselled her to go the gym goer's way and supplement her protein intake from whey protein."Since plant proteins are not adequate enough, I was told that I would need to consume more to meet my daily requirement. The other alternative was to switch to whey protein powders. My physician told me whey protein was the best way to counter the loss of muscle mass," Majumder says, adding, "Moreover, with age, digestion becomes a problem and whey protein is easily digestible."



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