Rethinking Protein As We Age
Let's talk about what an RDA is. The RDA is the recommended daily allowance for a particular food or nutrient. The RDA is a bare minimum of a nutrient that we require to avoid some type of disease or disorder. For example, the RDA of vitamin C is 90 and 75 MG per day for men and women respectively. That is JUST ENOUGH vitamin C to avoid getting scurvy. The RDA for Vitamin D is 600 IU's per day for adults. That amount is JUST ENOUGH to not get osteomalacia or rickets.
Before I dive into protein I want to make sure you understand that the RDA is an amount set by governmental institutions to get the population to meet the bare minimum requirements of a particular nutrient so as to avoid malnutrition related disorders; the RDA is NOT an amount meant to optimize and maximize health. They are simply a bare minimum.
Now, let's talk about protein requirements as we get older.
In the US, we can largely predict a life expectancy or nearly 75 years. Some countries like Japan and Switzerland can expect 80+ years. Many of these advances in life expectancy are the result of improved public health measures and emergency medical care as well as chronic suppression of risk factors via pharmaceuticals. Three of the most predominant risk factors for decaying health as we age are osteoporosis (loss of bone density), sarcopenia (loss of muscle density), and increasing insulin resistance (often as a result of loss of muscle density).
Bone related disorders and muscle related disorders often begin their onset in an individuals 40's, and for sedentary individuals it can begin as early as their 30's. Lack of physical activity is certainly a risk factor for accelerating these disorders, but the more often overlooked risk factors is intake of QUALITY protein.
For some reason, it is en vogue right now to demonize high protein intakes as some sort of boogieman that is an underlying cause for all diseases. Every couple of decades we pick a macronutrient and demonize it only to realize we were wrong years later. In the 60's through the 90's we demonized fat, in the 2000's we demonized carbs, now we have moved on to protein. Here's a concept: what if the actual boogieman that is our largest underlying risk factor is the excessive amounts of calories we eat in America??? The average American consumes roughly 3000 calories a day and 50-60% of their daily calories from carbohydrates (mainly processed carbs and added sugars), 20-30% protein, and 20-30% from fats (primarily trans fats, added fats, and industrial seed oils). I have a very hard time believing that somehow protein is what is causing our health issues in this country. In fact, red meat consumption has exponentially declined since the 1970's, yet it is somehow being blamed for our nutritional woes (maybe the fact that row crop agriculture takes up about 945,080,000 acres in our country, and is the largest component of our agricultural economy has something to do with that narrative?)
We are being fed a narrative that protein is "toxic" and bad for us. Here's the thing, protein intake is dangerous when it makes up greater than about 80% of your calorie intake. That is very difficult to do unless you are eating nothing but chicken breast, rabbit, or protein supplements and very very little of anything else.
Here is the reality. Muscle is made up of 90% protein and bone density is 40% protein. Considering that loss of bone density and muscle density are two major risk factors involved in accelerated aging and loss of quality of life in our older years, we should be looking to optimize protein intake throughout our life. Protein is not "toxic." Be mindful of narratives being spewed by our media. I often advise patients to stay as far away from governmental dietary recommendations as possible. After all, have they ever been accurate during our lifetime?
The current RDA of .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is too low. In fact, as we age I would argue that recommendation isn't even high enough to avoid sarcopenia and osteopenia. Sedentary individuals should aim for 1.2 grams of protein per day per KG of bodyweight, and active individuals should aim for 1.6-2 G/KG of bodyweight.
Here is a very simple tip to attain this amount of protein. Every time you eat, protein and vegetables should be at the center of that meal. Focus each meal around a protein and everything else is a bonus. Protein sources we regularly consume in our house are as follows: poultry, game (Dr. Matt spends the fall and winter months hunting), lean red meats, fish, and eggs.
A couple more tips. 1) If a food has to advertise that it has protein in it (ie candy cars, granola bars, packaged food, fake meat, and plant products) chances are it is a garbage protein source. Don't bother. 2) If your diet requires you to supplement anything (protein or otherwise) it is an incomplete diet. Supplementation should be an absolute last resort. If you are not getting what you need in diet, change your diet, don't supplement (unless your sport calls for it).