To be strong, seniors need to focus mainly on two things: strength training and protein in their diet.
To be strong, seniors need to focus mainly on two things: strength training and protein in their diet. Seniors are taking advantage of weight-training classes, yoga, aqua aerobics and even spinning, and the pluses are worth the effort: improved strength and balance, stronger heart and lungs and a lower risk of diabetes or a bone fracture. But to reap the benefits, seniors need to pay attention to what they eat, too. Recent research finds more protein is needed as we age - necessary to keep muscles and joints strong and enable the body to manufacture substances, like hemoglobin, insulin, neurotransmitters and others. Counting grams The recommended dietary allowance is for adults to divide their body weight by three to get the number of grams recommended - for example, 50 grams of protein for a 150-pound person. Researchers at The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Department of Geriatrics, are finding that is too low to improve muscle mass, strength and function in the elderly, and they recommend almost doubling the amount. As the research continues, experts say it is prudent for seniors to aim for halving their weight number - for example, 75 grams for a 150-pound person or 60 grams for 120 pounds. Better food choices Experts recommend switching to a high-protein breakfast after middle age, which is when we start to lose muscle mass. Options could be a yogurt smoothie with fruit, a vegetable omelet or oatmeal with milk rather than water. Although grains and vegetables supply an average of 3 grams of protein per half-cup serving, the bulk of dietary protein should come from animal sources or soy protein because they contain an essential amino acid, called leucine, found to stimulate muscle building. Whey protein in milk contains the richest concentration of leucine as well as eggs, meat, poultry, fish and other dairy products. Each 1-ounce serving of meat, poultry or fish contains an average of 7 grams of protein. An egg contains 6 grams, and a cup of milk or a serving of yogurt is 8 grams. Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are more concentrated with about 17 grams of protein per serving. A veggie burger or 4 ounces of tofu has 14 to 18 grams. Time it out Active seniors should aim to eat protein-rich foods like yogurt, cottage cheese or a tuna sandwich right after exercise because this is when the body is primed to build muscle, and it helps improve strength. Spread out protein during the day because the body can only use 30 grams at a meal or snack for muscle building. Instead of choosing 6 to 8 ounces of chicken breast at dinner, for example, a better option is to eat half that serving at lunch. Aim for balanced meals and snacks that contain protein to meet the daily protein aim. To avoid weight gain and excess saturated fat, choose leaner chicken, turkey and white fish (same protein content but roughly half the calories per ounce compared to beef) and fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese. If lactose intolerance is a problem, try lactose-free varieties or soy milk. Joan Endyke is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in food and nutrition. Send your questions to her at www.wicked goodhealth.com. This column is not intended to diagnose or treat disease. Check with your doctor before changing your diet.