If you’ve reached your 50s or 60s, your body’s needs for dietary protein may have taken an unexpected turn upward. If you want the same muscle-building response that a mere 10-20 grams of protein could produce in your youth, then new research suggests you’re better off getting 30 or more grams in each meal.
In addition, whey protein can help maximize your anabolic response from daily intake of protein while also helping you with weight management.
Beyond 30 Grams Per Meal
In a recent study, University of Mississippi investigators found that older adults who ate multiple meals over the course of the day with protein in the range of 30 and 45 grams had the greatest association with lean muscle mass and strength (1).
The researchers analyzed diet, leg strength, and body composition in more than 1,000 adults ages 50-85 years old. They found that eating frequent meals with at least one to two meals of the larger protein dose was associated with higher strength and lean body mass. “…a threshold of 30-45 grams of dietary protein per meal seems to produce the greatest association with lean body mass and strength,” they wrote.
“Consuming dietary protein at more than one meal may be of importance for individuals seeking to optimize muscle mass and strength, but may be a particularly important strategy among individuals vulnerable to muscle mass loss including older adults,” the researchers concluded.
Distribute Whey Over the Course of the Day
Not only is the amount important, but also how you distribute your intake over the day. While evenly distributing protein is best, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that the majority of people in the U.S. eat most of their daily protein at the last meal of the day.
But in another recent study, researchers found that evenly distributing protein throughout the day (30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner) stimulated muscle building to a greater degree than a “skewed” intake (10 grams at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch, and 65 grams at dinner) (2).
The same effect was noted in obese adults on a weight-loss diet consuming whey protein (3). Evenly distributing 75 grams of whey protein (three, 25-gram shakes) throughout the day was better for retaining muscle in comparison to a skewed intake of 10 grams at breakfast, 15 grams at lunch, and 50 grams at dinner.
Getting Past the RDA
In each of these studies, protein consumption exceeded the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. As a result, a number of researchers have proposed that the RDA is simply not adequate for older adults for sufficiently assisting muscle maintenance and growth (4-6).
The RDA for protein also gives no guidance on how much to consume at each meal. But it’s important information for older adults who are seeking to maximally stimulate muscle building at each meal to help preserve muscle mass over time (6, 8).
In middle-aged and older adults, a higher protein intake per meal in the range of 30-40 grams of protein appears to be necessary to maximize muscle protein synthesis (9-11). These intakes could assist older adults who are more prone to age-related muscle loss (also known as sarcopenia) and overweight individuals seeking to lose weight on an energy-restricted diet while still maintaining muscle.
When Protein Is Too High
How high is too high for protein in a single meal? Several studies have demonstrated that there is a rise in the rate of muscle protein synthesis up to a certain point (9, 12). Beyond this optimal protein dose (about 30-40 grams), muscle protein synthesis cannot be stimulated further, despite larger protein amounts, and is either converted to usable energy or fat (13, 14).
You might do best by sticking to the following rules as you age, as suggested by the recent nutrition studies on protein:
- Be sure to keep your protein intake to about 1.2-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
- Consume 30-45 grams of high-quality protein at each meal, over multiple meals per day in order to evenly space protein servings.
- Use whey protein consistently as a nutritional supplement in the form of a whey-based meal replacement shake or supplement.
- Loenneke JP, Loprinzi PD, Murphy CH & Phillips SM. Per meal dose and frequency of protein consumption is associated with lean mass and muscle performance. Clin Nutr. 2016 Apr 7.
- Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK & Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. J Nutr. 2014 Jun; 144(6):876-80.
- Murphy CH, Churchward-Venne TA, Mitchell CJ, Kolar NM, Kassis A, Karagounis LG, Burke LM, Hawley JA & Phillips SM. Hypoenergetic diet-induced reductions in myofibrillar protein synthesis are restored with resistance training and balanced daily protein ingestion in older men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015 May 1; 308(9):E734-43.
- Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, Cesari M, Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Morley JE, Phillips S, Sieber C, Stehle P, Teta D, Visvanathan R, Volpi E & Boirie Y. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013 Aug; 14(8):542-59.
- Deutz NE, Bauer JM, Barazzoni R, Biolo G, Boirie Y, Bosy-Westphal A, Cederholm T, Cruz-Jentoft A, Krznariç Z, Nair KS, Singer P, Teta D, Tipton K & Calder PC. Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clin Nutr. 2014 Dec; 33(6):929-36.
- Volpi E, Campbell WW, Dwyer JT, Johnson MA, Jensen GL, Morley JE & Wolfe RR. Is the optimal level of protein intake for older adults greater than the recommended dietary allowance? J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2013 Jun; 68(6):677-81.
- Rafii M, Chapman K, Owens J, Elango R, Campbell WW, Ball RO, Pencharz PB & Courtney-Martin G. Dietary protein requirement of female adults >65 years determined by the indicator amino acid oxidation technique is higher than current recommendations. J Nutr. 2015 Jan; 145(1):18-24.
- Paddon-Jones D & Leidy H. Dietary protein and muscle in older persons. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014 Jan; 17(1):5-11.
- Yang Y, Breen L, Burd NA, Hector AJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Josse AR, Tarnopolsky MA & Phillips SM. Resistance exercise enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis with graded intakes of whey protein in older men. Br J Nutr. 2012 Nov 28; 108(10):1780-8.
- Pennings B, Groen B, de Lange A, Gijsen AP, Zorenc AH, Senden JM & van Loon LJ. Amino acid absorption and subsequent muscle protein accretion following graded intakes of whey protein in elderly men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Apr 15; 302(8):E992-9.
- Robinson MJ, Burd NA, Breen L, Rerecich T, Yang Y, Hector AJ, Baker SK & Phillips SM. Dose-dependent responses of myofibrillar protein synthesis with beef ingestion are enhanced with resistance exercise in middle-aged men. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Feb;38(2):120-5.
- Cuthbertson D, Smith K, Babraj J, Leese G, Waddell T, Atherton P, Wackerhage H, Taylor PM & Rennie MJ. Anabolic signaling deficits underlie amino acid resistance of wasting, aging muscle.FASEB J. 2005 Mar; 19(3):422-4.
- Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, Tang JE, Glover EI, Wilkinson SB, Prior T, Tarnopolsky MA & Phillips SM. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan; 89(1):161-8.
- Atherton PJ, Etheridge T, Watt PW, Wilkinson D, Selby A, Rankin D, Smith K & Rennie MJ. Muscle full effect after oral protein: time-dependent concordance and discordance between human muscle protein synthesis and mTORC1 signaling. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Nov; 92(5):1080-8.