Unless you’re a bodybuilder (in which case I feel sorry for you) or an elite athlete (in which case I salute you for being a member of a superior species), the conventional wisdom has been that you don’t need a whole lot of protein in your diet. But that idea is changing, especially for middle-aged and older people (and if you’re a younger person, I know you’re not paying attention to me anyway).
A recent large study (1) showed that eating more protein may lead to increased muscle mass. This, in turn, may help prevent age-related declines in strength and functional capacity (using criteria such as the ability to climb stairs, lift heavy grocery bags, and walk half a mile). In the study, people who also were more physically active (especially by doing resistance exercise) and who were relatively slim (BMI less than 28) had the best results of all.
For most people, lean muscle mass declines from 50% of total body weight in young adults to 25% in adults aged 75–80 years (2). So how nice is it to know that this decline isn’t inevitable (3)? It now appears that for adults with normal kidney function, the Recommended Dietary Allowance of 0.8 grams of protein per day per kilogram of weight is too low for optimal muscle strength (4). A better amount, particularly for adults ages 65 years or older, might be 1.0–1.2 g/kg/day — and perhaps even more for people who are more physically active (5).
Don’t kid yourself, however, into thinking that the health benefit of a hot dog is equivalent to that of salmon or Greek yogurt. Higher intake of red and processed meat is associated with increased mortality, particularly from heart disease and cancer (6-9). If you substitute as little as one meat serving per day with a non-meat source of protein, such as fish or plant-based proteins, you may lower your mortality risk by as much as nearly 20% (10).
Here is a small sample of the protein content of foods. You can find a more complete list at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Composition Database.
Fish & Shellfish, 3 ounces:
Salmon: 22 grams
Shrimp: 20 grams
Meat, 3 ounces:
Chicken: 28 grams
Beef: 26 grams
Egg (1 egg): 6 grams
Beans & Legumes, 1/2 cup:
Tofu: 10 grams
Lentils: 9 grams
Black beans: 8 grams
Quinoa: 4 grams
Nuts and Seeds, 1 ounce:
Soy nuts: 12 grams
Pumpkin seeds: 9 grams
Peanuts or peanut butter (1 Tbl): 7 grams
Almonds/Walnuts: 6 grams
Dairy Products, 1 cup:
Greek yogurt: 18 grams
Regular yogurt: 11 grams
Milk or soy milk: 8 grams
Cheese (1 ounce): 6 grams
How does this play out in real life? Let’s say you weigh 154 pounds. That’s 70 kilograms (you divide the number of pounds by 2.2). And let’s say you decide to try to eat at least 84 grams of protein a day (which works out to be 1.2 grams/kilogram). Here’s what the protein part of your day might look like:
oatmeal with 1 ounce of walnuts (6 grams protein)
1 cup of Greek yogurt (18 grams)
shrimp, 3 ounces (20 grams)
pumpkin seeds, 1 ounce (9 grams)
soy nuts, 1 ounce (6 grams)
salmon, 3 ounces (22 grams)
quinoa, 1/2 cup (4 grams)
TOTAL: 85 grams protein
Of course, you’re also going to be eating lots and lots of fruits and vegetables during the day, right? Please — promise me.
Enough science. Let’s talk delicious protein. Salmon, particularly wild salmon, which is loaded with divine omega-3 fatty acids, is heart-healthy and may even protect against cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s Disease (11).
Here’s an easy salmon recipe that impresses the heck out of people. You can stuff the salmon with any combination of vegetables. I always include red pepper and spinach because they’re so pretty, but suit yourself. If you like crunch, then you also might want to include some toasted pine nuts to the cooked vegetables before you stuff the salmon.
Mustard & Maple-Glazed Stuffed Salmon
1 salmon filet, butterflied (cut in half horizontally almost all the way through, so that it opens like a book)
1 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
Vegetables for stuffing, such as:
½ chopped red pepper
½ chopped onion
2 mushrooms, chopped
handful of baby spinach leaves
½ cup pine nuts, toasted (optional)
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 tsp maple syrup (or honey)
1 Tbl soy sauce or tamari
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sauté the vegetables (except the spinach) in the oil on low-medium heat for a few minutes until the vegetables are softened. Turn off the heat and stir in the spinach. Place the vegetables (and nuts, if you’re using them) between the two salmon layers.
Combine the glaze ingredients in a small bowl, and brush the glaze over the top of the salmon.
Place the salmon on a foil-lined* baking sheet. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes.
*The foil is not optional if you want to be able to ever use that pan again!
(1)Mustafa J et al. Dietary protein and preservation of physical functioning among middle-aged and older adults in the Framingham Offspring Study. Am J Epidemiol 2018;187(7):1411-9.
(2)Short KR et al. Age and aerobic exercise training effects on whole body and muscle protein metabolism. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2004; 286(1): E92–E101.
(3)Symons TB, et al. The anabolic response to resistance exercise and a protein-rich meal is not diminished by age. J Nutr Health Aging 2011;15(5):376–81.
(4)Volpi E et al. Is the optimal level of protein intake for older adults greater than the recommended dietary allowance? J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2013; 68(6): 677–81.
(5)Bauer J et al. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc 2013; 14(8):542–59.
(6)Bellavia et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause mortality: a dose-response analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 2013; 98:454-9.
(7) Halton TL et al. Low-carbohydrate-diet score and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1991-2002.
(8)Larsson SC, Orsini N. Red meat and processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis. Am J Epidemiol 2013; 179(3):282-9.
(9)Sinha R et al. Meat intake and mortality. Arch Intern Med 2009; 169(6):562-71.
(10) Pan A et al. Red meat consumption and mortality. Arch Intern Med 2012; 172(7):555-63.
(11)Wu S et al. Omega-3 fatty acids intake and risks of dementia and Alzheimer’sdisease: a meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2015; 48:1-9.