Getting enough protein in your diet is of prime importance, especially to support healthy ageing. Protein, which is made up of amino acids, provides the building blocks for all cellular reactions, growth and repair in your body. It helps your muscles to contract, your bones to strengthen, your skin to repair, your blood to clot and your eyes to see.
It keeps your metabolism powering on and defends your body against disease. It is important to prioritise protein foods at each meal within a healthy eating pattern but not at the exclusion of other nutrients like healthy carbohydrates and fats.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that all Australians eat and enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods within the five core food groups and appropriate servings for age and gender – vegetables, fruit, grains (cereals), protein foods and dairy food or dairy alternatives (www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines). This will ensure a high quality diet to meet your changing nutritional requirements as you age.
Many foods contain protein. However, there are some foods that are higher in protein and nutrients than others. The key is to eat a wide variety of nutrient rich protein foods everyday such as lean red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. This will give you the right balance of essential amino acids and nutrients including iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin D, omega-3 oils, and calcium.
Optimising muscle health as we age is vital to maintain independence and quality of life. The progressive loss of muscle mass (called sarcopenia) and decreases in muscle response, strength and function are inevitable with ageing. However, a high quality diet with adequate amounts of protein to stimulate muscle synthesis combined with regular exercise (aerobic and resistance training) will slow down the rate of muscle and bone loss but will not prevent it. Therefore, optimising muscle health is a core preventative strategy for older people (greater than 65 years) as its benefits extend to bone health as well as reduced risk of chronic disease.
Promoting muscle health in older persons requires maintaining a higher dietary protein intake (1.0 – 1.2 g protein/kg body weight/day) to stimulate protein synthesis compared to younger people. For older people who regularly exercise 1.2g protein/kg body weight/day is recommended. For example, if you weigh 70 kg then you will need 84g protein per day. In general, this means having three regular main meals a day with 20 – 30 g of protein at each meal depending on body weight and level of activity. Getting the balance right is paramount for healthy ageing.
Protein rich foods don’t need to be the most expensive item in your shopping trolley. The humble egg is approximately 30 cents and it contains all the essential amino acids. A can of fish (salmon, sardines, tuna) is around two dollars and is full of omega- 3 oils while plant protein sources of legumes (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans) are around $1.50 for a can and are excellent for protein bulking up a salad, stir-fry or soup. Cheaper meat cuts like chuck steak or oyster blade steak are nutritious and tasty when slow cooked in casseroles or stir-fries respectively. Don’t waste your money on commercial protein bars, powders or shakes. Just make your own protein smoothie with skim milk powder (1/4 cup), 250ml low fat milk, and 200g yoghurt blended with banana or mixed berries (raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries). You could also make your own protein balls with dates, almond meal, ground walnuts, wheat germ, mashed banana and shredded coconut. Below are some meal ideas to guide you towards achieving the right balance of protein food combinations (approximately 20-30g protein at each meal) to meet your nutritional needs.
- 2 eggs on 2 slices of wholegrain toast
- 2 egg omelette with 1 slice of cheese and mushrooms, spinach or grilled tomato
- Porridge made from 1/2 cup of rolled or steel cut oats, with 1 cup of milk and a handful of unsalted raw nuts with mixed berries
- Tuna/salmon 100g (canned) or 65g cold lean meat sandwich with salad
- Baked beans (150g can) with 2 slices cheese on 2 slices wholemeal bread
- 1 cup of minestrone soup with 1 tablespoon grated cheese and 200g yoghurt
- 80g skinless baked chicken breast with ½ cup brown rice and vegetables
- 100g grilled salmon, 1 baked potato and vegetables
- Frittata with 1 cup of grated cheddar or low fat ricotta or feta and 1 cup of mixed vegetables with herbs
Tania Mathewson is an accredited practicing dietitian (APD). She works in the community as well as aged care in Canberra and Queanbeyan.
For further individual nutrition advice find an APD in your area by visiting the DAA website at www.daa.asn.au or call 1800 812 942