How Older Adults Can Meet Their Protein Needs

Close to half of people in this group don't get enough of this vital nutrient

salmon dish with spinach, sliced radishes, and beans Photo: Annabelle Breakey/Getty Images

A healthy diet includes a balance of carbs, lean protein, and “good” fats like olive oil. But one of those macronutrients—protein—is especially important for older adults.

Protein helps us maintain and even add muscle. That’s crucial, because we lose 30 to 50 percent of our muscle mass between ages 40 and 80, says Marta Lonnie, a teaching fellow and research assistant at the University of Aberdeen in the U.K. Getting sufficient protein can help reduce the resultant increase in fall risk. Protein also plays a role in creating hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters, which your body uses in many ways.

But how much protein is enough, and where should you get it? The answers to both questions become a bit more complicated as the years pass.

Why Older Adults Need More

Close to half of older adults get less than the amount of protein suggested by the National Academy of Medicine, according to a 2019 study in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging. The Recommended Dietary Allowance is 0.36 gram per pound of body weight daily, or 54 grams for a 150-pound person. (You can get about 50 grams in 5.5 ounces of Greek yogurt, 3 ounces of chicken breast, and a half-cup of white beans.)

More On Healthy Eating

But older adults who hit these recommendations may still have a protein shortfall. According to Lonnie, although you might consume the same amount of protein you did in your younger years, your body might not be able to use it as well. Another factor is inflammation from infections and other medical problems, which hikes protein needs. You probably have more comorbidities, injuries, chronic diseases, or surgery in older age, Lonnie says. Plus, older adults are more likely to have chronic systemic inflammation, which raises the body’s protein requirements.

Some medications, like steroids, may also ramp up protein needs. And if you don’t get enough in your diet, the body will pull it from your muscles, says Mary Marian, RDN, director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Arizona in Tucson. That can lead to further loss of muscle and strength.

What's the Right Amount?

Because of the factors above, research supports increasing the recommended intake of protein for older adults by up to 50 percent. That means people over age 65 should strive for 0.45 to 0.55 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily, or about 68 to 83 grams for a 150-pound person.

If you’re trying to lose weight or you exercise regularly, especially if you strength train, you should stick with the higher end of that range to help preserve and add muscle, and increase satiety. Older adults with chronic diseases should get even more protein—0.68 gram per pound, or 102 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds—according to a position paper published in 2013 by the PROT-AGE Study Group, international health experts who convened to develop protein guidelines for older adults.

Your muscles prefer that you spread your protein out over the day. In fact, Lonnie says that downing a large amount of protein at dinner, common in American diets, won’t help you build muscle. So depending on your weight, you’ll want to aim for about 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal, she says.

Be aware that while protein is quite satiating, which makes increasing your intake useful if you’re trying to lose weight, there’s some question about whether this might make someone who’s underweight feel full and eat even less.

In this situation, it’s wise to work with a qualified dietitian, who can look at your health history, weight, appetite, current diet, and medications, and help you determine how to get enough nutrition to stay healthy and strong. And note that while most older adults should be able to tolerate adding protein to their diets, this could exacerbate chronic kidney disease, Marian says.

The Best Sources

Meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy provide protein, as you probably know. But you can also get plenty from plant sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy, and whole grains.

The main difference between animal and plant proteins is the variety of amino acids they contain. Animal-based sources are considered “complete,” meaning they have adequate amounts of all nine amino acids the body must get through food.

Some plant foods, including quinoa and soy, are also considered complete. Certain others, such as grains and legumes, form complete proteins when eaten in the same meal (say, rice and beans or peanut butter on whole-wheat toast) or on the same day. If your primary sources of protein are plant-based, it’s a good idea to include a variety of whole grains, beans, and lentils in your diet so that you get enough of all nine essential amino acids.

A potential drawback to getting protein solely from plants is that you may have to eat a larger volume of food to get the amount of protein you would from animal sources. That can be difficult, Lonnie says, especially for older adults whose appetites may be less robust than they once were or who have trouble chewing.

So consider a plant-forward eating style, which doesn’t preclude meat but relegates it to a lesser role. It’s one that more and more people are embracing. In 2020 the plant-based food market grew more than 25 percent—double that of the regular retail food market—according to a report from the Good Food Institute.

These foods can help you reach your protein goals:

  • Beef, grilled, 3 ounces: 24 grams
  • Chicken breast, cooked, 3 ounces: 24 grams
  • Salmon, cooked, 3 ounces: 23 grams
  • Tuna, 3.5 ounces: 19 grams
  • Tempeh, ½ cup: 17 grams
  • Greek yogurt, plain, nonfat, 5.5 ounces: 16 grams
  • Tofu, ½ cup: 10 grams
  • Beans, canned, white, ½ cup: 9.5 grams
  • Edamame, shelled, ½ cup: 9 grams
  • Hemp seeds, 3 Tbsp.: 9 grams
  • Lentils, cooked, ½ cup: 9 grams
  • Quinoa, cooked, 1 cup: 8 grams
  • Whole-wheat pasta, cooked, 1 cup: 8 grams
  • Almonds, raw, 1 ounce: 6 grams
  • Buckwheat, cooked, 1 cup: 6 grams
  • Egg, one: 6 grams

When Protein Is Added to Food

In addition to the protein drinks and powders that have been on the market for years, we’re seeing more items made of or enriched with protein, including pastas, baking mixes, and cereals.

Can they help you meet your needs? “While these foods may be high in protein, someone eating a predominantly plant-based diet would still need to be sure they were balancing protein sources to not be deficient in single amino acids that are considered essential,” says Cary Kreutzer, RD, an associate professor of clinical gerontology and pediatrics at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in Los Angeles.

For instance, some high-protein pastas, such as those made from chickpeas or black beans, are healthy. “But I would avoid a sugar-laden, low-fiber breakfast cereal labeled ‘high protein,’” Marian says.

If you’re choosing protein-enriched products, remember that “high protein” on the label means an item must contain 10 grams or more per serving. To be called a “good” source, it must have 5 to 9.5 grams in a serving.

Protein-based drinks and powders, which often contain soy, pea, or whey (from dairy) proteins, vary in their nutritional benefits. Some have additives, such as artificial flavors, or a lot of added sugars. And protein powders aren’t the whole food ground into a powder. Rather, protein is extracted from the food in a lab, so you’re left with protein but not the other nutritional components. There’s also concern that residue from some of the chemicals used to extract the protein may be left in the final product, and some powders have been found to be contaminated with heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead.

Still, these drinks may be useful in certain cases. “I always recommend people try to get their protein from whole foods,” Marian says, “but some of the protein drinks provide 30 grams of protein in one serving, and they can be helpful for the person who doesn’t have a great appetite.” She advises picking one that has the fewest additives and low added sugars.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the January 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

Janet Lee

Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.