Egg Nutrition Center Blog

Dietary Protein Needs Across the Lifecycle

Today’s post comes from Dr. Donald Layman. Dr. Layman is the Director of Research at the Egg Nutrition Center and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois and a leading researcher studying dietary needs for protein and amino acids.

Dietary protein provides the amino acid building blocks to make new proteins. It’s easy to recognize the importance of protein for children, but new research reveals that dietary protein may be even more important for older adults. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) published a Position Paper in the August issue of the Journal highlighting the importance of the amount and distribution of protein at individual meals for healthy aging. The new research defines the need for older adults to consume 25 to 30 g of protein at multiple meals each day with emphasis on the need for protein at breakfast.

Nearly 50 million Americans are over the age of 65. With life expectancy reaching 90, disability is the #1 health liability for adults. Nearly 50% of adults > 65 years old exhibit disability. Reduced physical activity contributes to weight gain characterized as increased body fat and loss of muscle. Age-related loss of muscle is called sarcopenia and a primary contributor to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis in adults.

Current dietary guidelines for protein focus on consuming the minimum RDA for protein of 0.8 g/kg body weight with no mention of meal distribution. New research suggests that adults may need 1.0 to 1.6 g/kg of protein and with a minimum of 30 g at each meal. This meal threshold for protein arises from the specific requirement for essential amino acids to repair and replace proteins in muscle. In children and young adults, synthesis of muscle protein is driven by hormones, physical activity, and a good diet. However, when growth ends, adults must maintain muscle without the metabolic advantage of growth hormones and many adults reduce physical activity. These age-related changes emphasize the need for dietary protein.

The average American consumes < 12 g of protein at breakfast, often < 20 g at lunch, and > 65 g at dinner. Any meal that contains < 25 g of protein provides no benefit to muscles and essentially wastes the protein in the meal. Dietary advice for older adults needs to recognize the protein threshold at meals and modify eating patterns to shift protein to meals early in the day.


Author: Anna Shlachter MS, RDN, LDN