The short answer to the question “Do We Need More Protein As We Get Older?” is ‘no.’ The long answer is also ‘no,’ but with more detail and legitimate scientific evidence to back it up.
Amelia’s mom, Jane, mentioned that the latest issue of the AARP magazine had an article about the importance of increasing protein intake as we get older. The article titled “How Much Protein Do You Need After 50? Eating more may help older people prevent muscle loss” was published earlier this year on AARP.org, but was included in this month’s print edition.
Serious Conflicts of Interest
The author of the AARP article cites a “2016 study from researchers at the departments of Food Science and Geriatrics at the University of Arkansas” to support the advice that older people need to consume more protein. And while the authors of the study declare “no conflicts of interest,” the acknowledgements section seems to pretty clearly indicate a few conflicts for two of the authors:
Wolfe has received honoraria for talks or consulting from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, PepsiCo, and Pronutria. Wolfe has also received research grants for the Abbott Nutrition and National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Baum has received grants from the Egg Nutrition Center/American Egg Board.
If these aren’t conflicts of interest when you’re recommending that people eat more protein, then I don’t know what is!
The original study cites a few other studies to support their stance, but it only took 5 minutes worth of digging to discover that one of the primary studies they quote was co-written by a researcher who is funded by a protein supplement company. And of course, “no conflicts of interest” were cited in any of that researcher’s studies, either.
You seriously CANNOT take anything you read at face value! Thanks to government and non-profit budget cuts, the majority of “science” funding comes from corporations or corporate funded industry associations, and they expect a return on their investment.
These studies may have some pretty serious conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean their conclusions are wrong. It really depends on their methodologies, which I’m not qualified to discuss since I’m not a trained scientific researcher. However, we luckily have several folks who are qualified to talk about the topic of protein who haven’t been corrupted by corporate greed.
Increasing Protein Intake After Age 65 by Dr. Michael Greger
You can read more about our trusted sources of nutrition advice in my blog post, “Credible Nutrition Sources: Who Can You Trust?” Suffice it to say, Dr. Greger is at the top of the list. His non-profit doesn’t sell any products or accept funding from corporations or industry associations.
Here’s what he has to say about this question:
To summarize Dr. Greger: No, we don’t need more protein as we get older. Based on several unbiased studies, we have the same protein requirements at all ages. The best way to insure against muscle loss as we age, again supported by unbiased studies, is to eat a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, while remaining physically active.
In addition, increasing protein intake in a population like the United States that already eats WAY too much protein can lead to other, more serious health issues than weakened muscles for older people; diseases like cancer and kidney disease.
The Amino Acid Leucine
Another claim made in the AARP article is that as we age, we need more of the amino acid leucine. This amino acid is one of the 9 essential amino acids that we must obtain from the food we eat and is predominantly found in animal products, although it is also found in lower (arguably healthier) amounts in legumes and other plants.
While we do need SOME leucine to maintain good health, too much of it may have very negative effects. Several studies have shown that populations who live the longest, healthiest lives, including the Okinawans and other people from The Blue Zones, consume very little leucine.
Again, here’s what Dr. Greger has to say about how too much leucine, mainly from animal products, is thought to cause aging:
In typical American fashion, we think if a nutrient is good for us, then more must be GREAT for us. But that’s not the way the human body works. We’re designed to run most efficiently and disease-free on a range of levels of thousands of different nutrients, most of which we may never fully understand due to their complex interconnections and interactions.
Based on studies of the longest lived and healthiest populations on earth, the whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet is without doubt the best diet for human consumption. This doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating all animal products, but it does mean getting fewer than 10% of your calories from them.
And if you do that, you’ll be getting 90% of your calories from whole plant foods (oil is not a whole plant food), which makes it nearly impossible to eat a high-fat or high-protein diet. It also means you’ll be getting all the amino acids, including leucine, in the right proportions to maintain optimum health while slowing the aging process.
Ideally, you would get zero percent of your calories from animal products. That offers the greatest benefit for your health, as well as the health of the environment and the wellbeing of animals. But significant health improvements have been seen in everyone who at least reduces their consumption of animal products.
Protein for Weight Loss
Another claim made in the AARP article is that eating more protein can help with weight loss. This is also unfounded, at least in the long term. Sure, if you eat a high protein diet like Paleo and you’re already overweight or obese, you’re likely to lose weight in the short term.
This is because Paleo is a much healthier diet than the Standard American Diet (SAD). Paleo encourages fruit and vegetables, which most Americans never eat. Plus, they eliminate all processed foods, which is a primary source of calories in the SAD diet along with meat and dairy.
However, the rapid weight loss most people experience on both high protein and high fat diets like keto is from water weight. The process of ketosis causes your kidneys to work overtime, which puts tremendous stress on them, as well as on your pancreas. This can lead to kidney failure, pancreatitis and even death.
If you really want to lose weight AND be healthier overall, the WFPB diet that’s low in both protein and fat is the ONLY diet shown to effectively lead to weight loss and other health benefits (such as lower cholesterol and reversal of diabetes) over both the short-term AND long term. This is primarily due to the lower energy density of plant foods compared to high fat animal products (the main source of protein in American diets).
The number of deaths from kidney disease has doubled over the past generation mostly due to our obsession with protein, so telling our elderly to eat more protein, and especially the amino acid leucine, is very irresponsible of AARP. This type of biased, inadequately researched article contributes to the confusion about nutrition, leading to inaction at best and more harmful dietary patterns at worst.
The answer to the question, “Do We Need More Protein As We Get Older?” is an emphatic NO! In fact, most Americans need far LESS protein than they already consume! The protein myth was intentionally created by the meat, dairy and egg industries to sell more products, and it’s now being perpetuated with the help of the nutritional supplement (protein powder) industry.
Unlike the AARP article’s advice of 30-35% of calories from protein for our elderly, a level which has been shown to cause kidney disease and cancer, we only need 8-10% of calories from protein to remain healthy, along with regular, moderate physical activity.
Please. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated for profit at the expense of your own health. Question the nutrition advice you hear or read. Ask to see the unbiased science. Look for hidden conflicts of interest. Verify it against multiple reputable, unbiased sources that you trust. And continue to question who you trust.Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And please share with your friends to help spread the word about healthy plant-based eating.