By Lori Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games
Most people associate protein with building muscles. However, protein is found in almost every part of our body, including bones, hair, blood, skin, and yes, muscles. Protein is a macronutrient along with carbohydrates and fats. A macronutrient means that our bodies need these substances in large amounts as opposed to micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Protein provides a variety of vital functions throughout the body, from building muscle mass to keeping a healthy pH balance in bodily fluids. So let’s dive a little deeper to answer these questions: What is protein? How much do we need, and What are the best sources?
What is Protein and What Does it Do?
Protein is made up of amino acids, the “building blocks” of life. There are at least 20 amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential. Our bodies cannot produce these essential amino acids, so we must get them from the foods we eat. Protein is often associated with building muscle mass. And, it’s true protein plays a major role in building and maintaining muscles. However, building and repairing muscle tissue is not the only thing that protein does for the body. For example, enzymes are proteins that aid in digestion, muscle contraction and blood clotting. Some proteins such as insulin and glucagon are hormones that aid in the transfer of information between cells, tissue and organs. Collagen, found in tendons and ligaments, is a fibrous protein that gives structure and elasticity to our cells. Keratin is in hair, skin and nails, while elastin gives form to lungs, arteries and the uterus. Albumin and globulin are proteins in your blood that help “maintain your body’s fluid balance by attracting and retaining water.” Some proteins carry vital substances throughout the bloodstream. For instance, hemoglobin transports oxygen from your lungs to other tissues in the body. One other function of protein is to support immune health by creating antibodies to fight harmful bacteria and viruses. According to “The Nutrition Source” at least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.
How Much Protein Do We Need? Is it Different for Seniors?
Given the essential, wide-ranging functions of protein, it is important to have plenty of protein in our diet. According to the USDA, the amount of protein an individual needs depends on their age, sex, height, weight and level of physical activity. The National Library of Medicine suggests that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, or just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. That means about 50 grams of protein per day for someone weighing 140 pounds. For a 200 pound person about 70 grams of protein is recommended. Overall, the recommendation is between 10% and 35% of calories per day. However, according to “The Geriatric Dietitian” seniors need even more daily protein to prevent sarcopenia, the gradual loss of muscle due to aging. Although the exact amount of protein for seniors has yet to be determined, several studies suggest that seniors should take in 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to preserve muscle. That means that an older adult weighing 150 pounds (68.039 kilograms) should be consuming 68-82 grams of protein per day. It may be even more if the person is healing from an injury. It may be less if they suffer from kidney disease. Getting enough protein is crucial for everyone, especially seniors!
What are the Best Sources of Protein?
Protein can be found in both animal and plant sources. According to Helpguide.org, “...Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids.” However, even vegans can get all of the amino acids by eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein.
There are some other important considerations to keep in mind when choosing a protein source. For example, red meat is a good source of protein but may be high in saturated fat. Processed meats contain protein but also have lots of sodium and preservatives. Lentils, on the other hand, are relatively high in protein and are also a good source of fiber. Finally, protein powders are another protein option. These, however, like other dietary supplements, are not regulated by the FDA and the ingredients should be studied carefully before using them. The Cleveland Clinic also recommends that you think about your overall health goals before choosing a protein supplement over whole foods.
According to eatingwell.com here are 8 great sources of protein:
- Lean Beef 22 grams per 3 oz serving
- Chicken 27 grams per 3 oz serving
- Salmon 19 grams per 3 oz serving
- Eggs 6 grams in 1 large egg
- Peanut Butter 7 grams in 2 Tablespoons
- Pasta 8 grams in 1 Cup of cooked pasta
- Collage Cheese 12 grams in ½ Cup
- Lentils 18 grams in 1 Cup of cooked lentils