A study that purported to show that diets high in meat, eggs, and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking supposedly suggested that “[p]eople under 65 who eat a lot of meat, eggs, and dairy are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes.” But if you look at the actual study, you’ll see that’s simply not true: Those eating a lot of animal protein didn’t have four times more risk of dying from diabetes—they had 73 times the risk. Even those in the moderate protein group, who got 10 to 19 percent of calories from protein, had about 23 times the risk of dying of diabetes compared to those consuming the recommended amount of protein, which comes out to be about 6 to 10 percent of calories from protein, around 50 grams a day.
So, the so-called low protein intake is actually the recommended protein intake, associated with a major reduction in cancer and overall mortality in middle age, under age 65, but not necessarily in older populations. When it comes to diabetes deaths, lower overall protein intake is associated with a longer life at all ages. However, for cancer, it seems to flip around age 65.
“These results suggest that low protein intake during middle age followed by moderate to high protein consumption in old adults may optimize healthspan and longevity.” Some have suggested that the standard daily allowance for protein, which is 0.8 grams of daily protein for every healthy kilogram of body weight, may be fine for most, but perhaps older people require more. The study upon which the recommended daily allowance (RDA) was based indicated that, though there was a suggestion that the “elderly may have a somewhat higher requirement, there is not enough evidence to make different recommendations.”
The definitive study was published in 2008 and found no difference in protein requirements between young and old. The same RDA should be adequate for the elderly. However, adequate intake is not necessarily optimal intake. The protein requirement “studies have not addressed the possibility that protein intake well above the RDA could prove beneficial,” or so suggests a member of the Whey Protein Advisory Panel for the National Dairy Council and a consultant for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
A study followed sedentary individuals over the age of 65 for 12 years and found they loseabout one percent of their muscle mass every year. If you force people to lie in bed for days at a time, anyone would lose muscle mass, but older adults on bedrest may losemuscle mass six times faster than young people also on bedrest. So, it’s use it or lose it for everyone, but the elderly appear to lose muscle mass faster, so they better use it.
The good news is that in contrast to the 12-year U.S. study, a similar study in Japan foundthat the “[a]ge-related decreases in muscle mass were trivial.” Why the difference? It turns out that in the Japanese study, “the participants were informed about the results of their muscle strength, [so] they often tried to improve it by training before the next examination.” This was especially true among the men, who got so competitive their muscle mass increased with age, which shows that the loss of muscle mass with age is not inevitable—you just have to put in some effort.
And, research reveals that adding protein doesn’t seem to help. Indeed, adding more egg whites to the diet didn’t influence the muscle responses to resistance training, and that was based on studies funded by the American Egg Board itself. Even the National Dairy Council couldn’t spin it: Evidently, strength “training-induced improvements in body composition, muscle strength and size, and physical functioning are not enhanced when older people…increase their protein intake by either increasing the ingestion of higher-protein foods or consuming protein-enriched nutritional supplements.”
Is there anything we can do diet-wise to protect our aging muscles? Eat vegetables. Consuming recommended levels of vegetables was associated with basically cutting in half the odds of low muscle mass. Why? “[T]he alkalizing effects of vegetables may neutralize the mild metabolic acidosis” that occurs with age, when that little extra acid in our body facilitates the breakdown of muscle. We appear to get a chronic low-grade acidosis with advancing age because our kidney function starts to decline and because we may be eating an acid-promoting diet, which means a diet high in fish, pork, chicken, and cheese, and low in fruits and vegetables. Beans and other legumes are the only major sources of protein that are alkaline instead of acid-forming. And indeed, a more plant-based diet—that is, a more alkaline diet—was found to be positively associated with muscle mass in women aged 18 to 79.
So, if we are going to increase our protein consumption after age 65, it would preferably be plant-based proteins to protect us from frailty. No matter how old we are, a diet that emphasizes plant-based nutrition “is likely to maximize health benefits in all age groups.”