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Why protein is so important as we age & how to get enough

protein shake

Protein is about the most important macronutrient in general, but especially as we age, our need for protein increases.

"As we grow older, our bodies need more protein in each meal to help build and maintain muscles. A study found that older people need higher amounts of protein each day, but they were given surprisingly low protein supplements (about 20 grams per day). Because of this, the study didn't see a strong muscle response to the protein supplements in older individuals. Even though exercise helps the muscles respond better to protein, older people still need to eat more protein to gain and maintain muscle mass effectively."

To understand this better, let’s have a look at what protein does in your body: protein, or rather the amino acids that it delivers, provides the building blocks for just about every structure and tissue in the body! Your immune system is made up of proteins - did you know that? That’s a big reason why people who are eating low protein will have a compromised immune system.

It also:

  • keeps you fuller longer,

  • supports hormone production

  • and immune health,

  • helps keep up your muscle mass and metabolism and

  • is crucial to keeping your blood sugar stable.

You can see that as we age, it’s even more important to support these systems, but the main reason is that our metabolism slows down, we’re losing muscle and bone mass and we’re more prone to insulin resistance. So if you don’t want to become frail (muscle, bone, hair, mind, immune system), you need to increase your protein intake!

You should have protein with every meal, but especially for breakfast it’s important to get 30g of protein.

Another thing that’s crucial linked to your protein intake is your level of stomach acid: your body needs the stomach acid in order to break down the protein you consume into amino acids. Stomach acid production is actually decreasing as we age, but it’s also very much influenced by stress and HOW we eat. Keeping your stomach acid levels optimal is as important. Go back to my previous article on stomach acid to read more.

You may have been taught that eating a lot of meat especially is bad for your kidneys, gut (colorectal cancer) and can lead to coronary artery disease. These studies have long been debunked: they were done on the average male population that was consuming a lot of animal protein - all guys that were overweight, not eating any vegetables and also not eating any quality protein - you can bet that their arteries weren’t in the best shape… On top of that, it has been found that even overconsumption of protein rarely leads to kidney problems.

Read on to learn more about the importance of protein for your metabolic health, what’s the daily intake especially for women in perimenopause and menopause, significant differences between animal and plant sources, and how to get enough.

Why Protein is so important especially as we age

When you eat protein, it’s broken down into individual amino acids, which are then absorbed into your circulation via the small intestines. These amino acids help build and repair every type of cell and tissue, make hormones and enzymes, form antibodies, and so much more.

A key role of dietary protein is forming skeletal muscle. You need to eat your protein to preserve muscle mass, however, if you want to build muscle mass, you need to exercise (particularly resistance training).

But muscle mass is not only great to look better, it also helps balance your blood sugar: muscle essentially soaks up glucose from the bloodstream, using it for energy or storing it. Essentially, everything that goes into your muscles, doesn’t go on your hips or belly ;-)

In one study, for every 10-percent increase in skeletal muscle mass, there was an 11% reduction in insulin resistance - that means that the more muscle mass you have, the better your blood sugar.

The more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn in a fasted state. Even at rest, a muscle cell has a metabolic rate that’s about 5-10x higher than that of a fat cell. This is especially important for women in perimenopause and menopause, but also men are losing muscle mass when they age. So the more muscle mass you lose, the more prone you are to weight gain and the harder it will get to lose weight as your metabolism will also slow down due to the reduced muscle mass.

Adding protein to a meal that has carbs will help slow down the rate that glucose or sugar is released into your bloodstream after eating and therefore mitigate a blood sugar spike.

Adding a good amount of healthy fats to your meal will do the same by the way that’s why I always refer to Fat Fiber Protein with every meal for blood sugar balance! Also, protein cannot be adequately used without dietary fats, which is why in nature, they occur together: egg yolk and white, meat, fish…

A high protein and low fat diet can cause many problems including too rapid growth and depletion of vitamin A and D reserves.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Even the RDA recommends an increased intake of protein as we age. While they recommend 0.8g protein per kg of body weight, many metabolic health experts believe the optimal daily dose of protein may be significantly higher than that.

I recommend aiming for a MINIMUM of 1g protein per kg of body weight. However, that’s not enough if you’re active, over 40, are trying to lose weight, have a lot of stress (interestingly, hormones released during stress, like cortisol, increase muscle protein breakdown) or are recovering from surgery. In that case you need to double that.

As important as your total protein intake is, it’s also important that you distribute your protein intake and make sure that you’re eating about 30g with each meal. Eating more than this isn’t necessary: a study found that consuming a meal with 30 g or 90 g of protein had the same effect on muscle protein synthesis or building new muscle.

Your body can’t store the amino acids from protein for later use, so anything you eat beyond what your body needs to be appropriately processed. So you don’t want to over consume either at least not over a long stretch of time AND you should also consider that your body will actually convert excess protein into glucose and potentially store it as fat. That will happen especially if you’re not moving enough.

Let’s talk about the hot question: are plant-based proteins as good as animal protein?

Animal protein is (with exception of hemp, soy and quinoa) the only complete protein source for your body. This means that they contain all nine essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to support biological processes such as muscle protein synthesis. Animal proteins are also highly digestible (around 90 to 99 percent), with their amino acids being easily absorbed.

Plant proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are considered low quality because they have too little of one or more essential amino acids. That's why they must be consumed in combination with other nutrients so that the body can convert them. If we look at Latin American or Asian cultures for instance, rice is always served with beans or lentils or chickpeas (hummus) and whole wheat (Lebanese flat bread).

Goes without saying that the plant-based protein sources don't contain as much protein as animal sources: in order to get as much protein from chickpeas as from a small piece of meat, you'd need to consume about 2 cups of chickpeas (approx 500g)!

Also, beans and legumes always contain higher amounts of carbs and anti-nutrients like phytic acid and saponins which cause digestive distress for many and bind to important minerals like zinc. So eating plant based proteins exclusively or most of the time can deplete your body of minerals. Compared to an equal amount of animal protein, fewer amino acids end up being absorbed by the body potentially up to 10% less.

Usable Vitamin B12 is ONLY found in animal products. Furthermore, it can only be absorbed with special proteins in the stomach that allows it to be decomposed and assimilated. Vegetarian sources of B12 cannot be absorbed.

So in a nutshell: if you want to increase your protein intake but opt for plant-based sources, it is possible, but much more difficult for the body to assimilate and obtain the same result. For vegetarians I would highly recommend at least eating eggs several times a week and if possible consume the egg yolk liquid to preserve the nutrients.

What are good sources of protein ?

Wild caught fish, grass-fed meat, lamb, pasture-raised chicken or eggs, organic & raw cheese & dairy products (if tolerated), quinoa, hemp, chickpeas, lentils, nuts such as almonds etc.

30g protein example foods

To give you some examples of 30g protein:

  • 5 eggs

  • 140g wild salmon cooked

  • 100g chicken breast

  • 2 cups/500g black beans

  • 125g ground beef

  • 20g collagen powder

  • 1 cup/250g tempeh

  • 1 cup/250g Skyr

Some tips to pimp up your protein:

  • Use protein powders: I'm adding protein powders to my low carb breads and muffins or other baked goods. Check out my hormone balancing cookbook for recipes if you want to try this!

  • Sprinkle hemp seeds on your dishes: 3 tablespoons have 9.5 g , but also nutritional yeast is "high" in protein: 3 tablespoons have 8 g.

  • Snack on jerky bars like Epic Provisions Venison (my favorite!) it has 12 g protein or hardboiled eggs: 2 will have 12g of protein

  • Add any of these to a trail mix or sprinkle on your salads or dishes: roasted edamame (14 g protein per ⅓ cup), chickpeas (6 g protein per ¼ cup), or fava beans (7 g protein per ¼ cup), peanuts (7 g per ¼ cup), almonds (6 g per ¼ cup), or pistachios (6 g per ¼ cup)

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