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Is a High Protein Diet Right for you?

Posted by Elize Rumsley – RD, LD, CDE, MS, PhD. | Feb 4, 2015 10:12:00 AM

A few people have asked me whether a high protein diet is healthy for elders.  It is known that a high protein diet is not recommended for those with kidney disease, but if a person has normal kidney function, a slight increase in protein intake may be beneficial for elders.  The current recommended intake for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of weight or 65 grams of protein a day for someone weighing 180 lbs.  This recommendation originates from studies based on "protein balance" of younger adults, but not of elders who may need extra protein to cover loss of muscle and immune function.

We cannot avoid muscle loss as we age regardless of our total weight.  In fact, after age 30 to 40, we start losing about 1% of our muscle every year.   Without muscle it is difficult for our body to maintain balance and to perform daily activities.  So, how much do we need as we age?

Some observational studies are showing that elders who consume higher amount of protein can stay healthier longer.  In the Women' Health Initiative Study,  women above 50 years of age who consumed 0.54 grams protein per pound of weight every day were less frail, had better grip strength and standing capacity than those who consumed 0.45 grams at the end of a 3 year study, even though it did not demonstrate improved mobility.

Muscle metabolism is a constant dynamic of synthesis and breakdown.  Between meals there is more breakdown; after a meal, more synthesis. According to a small short term study, it appears that the muscle synthesis is higher if protein consumption is spread out throughout the day instead of having one large protein meal a day.

It is not clear yet whether elders can actually make more muscle after meals to overcome the breakdown of muscle between meals.  What we know for sure is that the best way to build muscle is to do some resistance training, even in old age.

More research is needed to clarify whether the amount of protein in the diet affects skeletal muscle size, strength or function.   Until more data is available, one should consume at least the minimum amount recommended by the Institute of Medicine or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight and if possible, aim to 0.5 grams per pound.

Food Item

Portion Size

Amount of Protein

Lean meat or fish


21 g

Greek yogurt , plain

1 cup

22 g

Cottage cheese

1/2 cup

14 g

Canned tuna, drained

3 oz

16 g

Tofu, extra firm

4 oz

11 g


1 cup

8 g

Beans, cooked

½ cup

8 g

Egg, large


7 g


1 oz

7 g

Soy milk

1 cup

6.5 g


¼ cup

6 g

Peanut butter

1 tbsp

3.5 g


2 tbsp

2 g

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Topics: Nutrition

Written by Elize Rumsley – RD, LD, CDE, MS, PhD.

Elize is registered and state licensed, has a BS in Human Nutrition and a MA and PhD in Nutrition Science.

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