It’s a time tested question in the world of nutrition and health: How much protein should I be taking? Not only is the answer completely personal (we don’t recommend a single diet—just the one that works for you!), but it evidently fluctuates depending on the age.
As we grow older, our body changes from the “production approach” to the “preservation approach” when it comes to protein. What does this infer? Well, protein affects our body differently as we age (and, it turns out, we might not need as much as we thought).
What is protein, and why is it essential?
Proteins are the primary building blocks of our bodies. They’re used to make tendons, muscles, skin, organs, and hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and various molecules that serve many critical functions .
Proteins consist of tiny molecules called amino acids, which link together like beads on a string. These linked amino acids form lengthy protein chains, which then fold into complicated shapes.
Our body produces some of these amino acids, but we must obtain others known as essential amino acids through our diet. Protein is not only about quality but also quantity.
Usually, animal protein provides all essential amino acids in the proper ratio for us to utilize them. This makes sense, as animal tissues are the same as our own tissues.
If we are eating animal products like fish, meat, dairy, or eggs, regularly, we’re likely getting adequate protein. However, if you don’t consume animal foods, getting all the essential amino acids and protein your body needs can be tougher.
Few individuals need to supplement with protein, but doing so can be useful for bodybuilders and athletes.
[Read: The Truth About the Protein]
Protein by the decades
As well as which, protein-dense foods are best for various age groups.
In your twenties and thirties…
When we are in the twenties and thirties, we want to be strong. We want a lot of animal protein, which is good for reproduction and growth. Of course, it is still possible to overdo it (you do not want to be taking tons and tons of protein, here), but generally, it’s fine to cast a wider net .
[Read: Top Protein Sources for Vegans]
In your forties and fifties…
Here’s where the shift begins to arise: Once you get to 45, you don’t need to grow anymore, and excessive animal protein will become “preserved” in our body. We know from studies that animal protein has a branch-chain amino acid known as thymine, which stimulates the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) .
This gene averts autophagy, which we know is a crucial process for longevity. We don’t want to stimulate the mechanistic target of rapamycin if we want to age well, so we want to inhibit that.
How do you limit that gene?
To cut down a little on animal protein. Now, you do not have to quit turkey literally—swap in some more plant protein sources on your plate. It’s a great idea as we get older to switch from animal protein to plant-based protein. Plant-based protein does not have that adverse effect on aging that animal protein does.
In your sixties and beyond…
Okay, so you should cut back on animal protein once you hit 45. Your sixties (and beyond) are the years to stress on muscle mass. We don’t want to shed muscle mass, so our protein requirements increase .
That’s not to say you should go back to prioritizing animal protein on your platter: Plant-based sources reign supreme—we might want to up the ante a bit. It would help if you increased [your levels] by using nuts, vegetable protein, and beans. Make sure to have an adequate serving of protein during each meal to keep the muscles healthy.
[Read: Why Do You Need a Low Protein Diet?]
Which sources of protein to take?
The usual suspects: Seeds and nuts are all good. We also love a healthy amount of beans and tempeh (gotta love those fermented soybeans!).
Again, that’s not to say you can’t take animal protein at all (we say it again: If it works for us, it works!), but we might want to concentrate on incorporating more plants into the rotation—their phytochemicals have loads of other advantages, anyway.
There’s one caveat for animal protein: Collagen is the one animal protein that doesn’t have those thymine amino acids. So if we’re worried about animal protein, collagen is an excellent protein source that does not harm longevity genes. Proceed with a smart collagen supplement or keep sipping on the bone broth.
[Read: Right Age to Take Collagen for Your Health]
How much protein do you need? Are you taking too little or too much?
Our body is made up of more than six hundred muscles, each with a particular job. The involuntary muscles perform essential functions such as passing urine and swallowing; then, there are the skeletal muscles that help you move, the ones we can make more robust and bigger.
We do this with diet and exercise, and that’s where protein comes in – it feeds, repairs muscle, and maintains it. However, while the amount you eat is critical, it’s not the end of the story.
Does taking more protein make more muscle?
No. A common myth is that higher protein consumption will give you bigger muscles; however, muscle gain is influenced by the frequency and the type of exercise you do and the gender, age, and hormones.
Instead, if you consume more than the body requires, that excess will be stored as fat or excreted through the kidneys as a waste product.
Do you need to eat protein with each meal?
Yes. Incorporating protein with every meal can help keep you satisfied afterward, but more significantly, you’re fuelling your muscle growth most potently.
It’s advisable to spread your protein intake evenly throughout a day, so for the average female adult who needs 46g in total, consuming at least 15g of protein with each main meal is a great idea.
While everyone has different protein requirements—the exact value does vary— you might need less of that amount as the years pass by. And if you’re partial to animal protein, you might want to introduce more plant-based sources once you hit forty-five; consider it the most straightforward longevity diet there is.