I’ve mentioned before that I like to participate in an annual eight-week fitness challenge at my workplace, in part to help beat the winter blues when I can’t go for walks or bike rides outside.

This year, I’ve definitely felt the “challenge” in the fitness challenge. After working out on my own for over a year during the pandemic, returning to gym workouts is rough. 

Admittedly, I may also be struggling through my workouts because I’m in my mid-40s now. I don’t think age has slowed me down, but it does take longer for me to recover from the usual aches and pains.

Plus, exercise makes me hungry. When I get home from work, I’m so tired and hungry that all I want to do is sit in my recliner and read until I eat a big dinner, and then I perk up again.

So I was fascinated when one of my favorite podcasts, Sound Bites with registered dietitian Melissa Joy Dobbins, recently discussed the importance of protein in our diets as we age.

The podcast featured an interview with Dr. Donald Layman, emeritus professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in muscle-centric nutrition research.

I encourage you to listen to the full podcast, but I wanted to share highlights from Dr. Layman’s interview that I found fascinating and helpful when planning my own meals and snacks around my active lifestyle.

  • Americans already eat a plant-based diet. About 70% of our calories comes from plant-based foods and only about 30% of our calories from animal-based foods, like real meat, poultry, dairy and eggs. However, 50% of our plant-based calories come from added sugars, oils and fats, and another 30% come from highly refined grains, like baked goods. “We don’t need a more plant-based diet. We need a diet that has better plants,” Layman said.

  • Less than 25% of Americans are consuming the recommended three servings of vegetables a day, and the top three vegetables consumed in the U.S. are potatoes (chips and fries), tomato sauce (pizza) and lettuce. “We are not eating broccoli and avocado and healthy plants. We are eating highly processed grain products,” he said.

  • Our bodies work to repair and replace proteins in our tissues and organs every day. However, as we get older, this protein-building process becomes less efficient. We lose about 4% of our muscle mass per decade after the age of 40.

  • Muscle impacts our metabolism, or how much energy (calories) our bodies need. We lose muscle when we age, so if you keep eating the same way you did in your 20s, you are going to accumulate fat.

  • We need protein to prevent age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia. The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein in the diet is 55 to 60 grams per day. However, that’s the minimum to prevent protein deficiency. Research now shows that adults need about twice the RDA level, or between 90 to 160 grams of protein a day, especially as we get older.

  • The quality of protein matters. Animal-based proteins are excellent sources of all the essential amino acids our bodies need. One key amino acid, leucine, is vital for muscle repair and replacement. However, leucine levels are low in plant-based foods, particularly grains.

  • Breakfast is a key meal of the day. At night, our muscles start to break down. Until you eat enough protein to trigger muscle growth, your body continues to break down muscle. So you should include protein, such as eggs scrambled with leftover pork or chicken, in your breakfast. You also want to eat protein throughout the day to keep your body in a muscle-building state.

  • Almost all vegetarian or vegan diets result in lower protein intakes. It’s difficult to consume 100 grams of protein each day on a vegetarian diet unless you turn to ultraprocessed foods. “It’s possible, but again, are you looking for more ultraprocessed foods in your diet or not?” Layman said.

  • All plants are deficient in one or two of the essential amino acids; the most critical are methionine, lysine and leucine. Methionine is limited in legume foods, such as peas and soy. Lysine is limited in grain products, such as corn, wheat and oats. And leucine is limited in grain products.

  • 40% of women age 60 and older consume less than the minimum RDA for protein. “So changing their diet to more plant-based is a real risk,” Layman said.

  • Milk alternatives, such as oat milk or almond milk, have low levels of lysine. If you’re serving your kids cereal (a grain) with almond milk, they aren’t getting the same high-quality, balanced protein as they get with real milk.

  • As for the sustainability of plant-based diets, 50% or our fruits and 25% of our vegetables consumed in the United States are imported, because we live in a northern climate and can’t grow these tropical crops here. The number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is transportation. “The climate impact of that is far greater than raising cattle,” Layman said.

Now, I’m not sharing this info to shame anyone for choosing a plant-based or vegetarian lifestyle. Everyone should be eating more nutrient-rich vegetables, such as broccoli, peppers and leafy greens.

As Layman said, the healthiest diets are those that mix plant-based and animal-based protein sources.

However, real meat’s positive nutrition story doesn’t get told enough.

We all want to maintain an active lifestyle and remain independent as we age. A balanced diet – including high-quality proteins from real meat and dairy – can help us achieve our health-aging goals.

Learn more about author Teresa Bjork here.

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