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Importance Of Protein For Older Adults

March is National Nutrition March.  In a KERA Health Checkup, some advice on the subject for people 50 and older. Sam Baker talked with Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at U-T Southwestern Medical Center.

Lona Sandon: As we start to age, one of the things that starts to happen is we start to lose lean body mass, and that’s kind of a natural part of aging. But we can stop some of that loss by eating right and staying physically active on a regular basis. And by eating right, one of those key things to do, is to make sure you’re getting enough protein every day.

Sam Baker: The protein contributes how?

Sandon: The protein and the essential amino acids that are in our proteins are what helps keep our muscle tissue there, as well as other tissues in the body.

Baker: So what are the sources of protein that you should use?

Sandon: I encourage that you look for lean sources of protein. So lean meats, like lean red meats. Always go for the leanest that you can find and trim off any visible fat. And you can look for lean poultry like chicken breast or turkey breast. Eggs are an excellent source of protein; the egg white is where all the protein is found.

Baker: Really?

Sandon: Yes.

Baker: How much protein should we consume?

Sandon: Protein depends on your body weight. So for most people you want to get about half a gram of protein per pound of body weight. So if you were 150 pounds, that would be about 75 grams of protein per day.

Baker: I do wonder if it becomes a problem at all for the elderly, if it presents an economic –

Sandon: Certainly. Meat can be a more costly source of protein. However, going back to eggs – eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein that you can find in the grocery store. Another low-cost protein is actually milk. So any kind of dairy, like cottage cheese, or low-fat milk, or low-fat yogurt are also very low-cost sources of protein. But we didn’t talk about the vegetarian sources of protein, which can even be lower-cost. So you don’t just have to get your protein from meat or animal products. You can also eat beans or legumes. Again, those are excellent sources of protein. And also nuts and seeds or nut butters, like peanut butter or almond butter, are all good sources of protein to include as well.

Baker: Now another problem facing people as they get older has to do with getting proper nutrition without going overboard on calories, or empty calories?

Sandon: Exactly. You want to avoid those empty calories. What happens as we get older, our appetites decrease and our calorie needs decrease, but our need for quality nutrition increases. So it becomes very important to make sure you’re choosing quality sources of calories rather than just quantity or empty calories.

Baker: For instance?

Sandon: Quality sources of calories are going to be those naturally nutrient-rich foods. So those things like the lean meats, the lean fish, the nuts and seeds as well as our fruits and vegetables, and always going for whole grains over refined grains.

Baker: It’s interesting though that should be seen as a problem of getting proper nutrition without going overboard on these empty or excess calories. How is that happening?

Sandon: Well, it’s a tough balance. You don’t need as many calories when you’re older, and if you’re spending your calories on snack foods and cookies, cakes all those kinds of fun things, then you don’t have room for those other, healthier foods. Not that you can’t have those from time to time. But it becomes really important to focus on those good, quality sources of nutrition.

Lona Sandon is an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at U-T Southwestern Medical Center and a registered dietitian.  

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