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As we age, how much protein do we really need?

September 2018

Couple behind fish display
High protein foods can be especially useful as we age

If you haven’t looked at becoming vegan or vegetarian, it is quite likely that some of your children, nieces and nephews or other young people you know are addressing this new lifestyle with zest. A recent survey (from says that there has been a significant spike in the number of people going vegan in the UK since 2016, and now more than 3.5 million British people are vegan.

Add to that a huge number of vegetarians and the trend to give up animal meat is clearly a major aspect in modern life. The move is without doubt led by the younger generations. Many people of our age, having been brought up on a traditional meat and two veg basic diet, are still unclear and in some cases very unenthusiastic about giving up meat and animal products entirely.

A key to this is the mind set we lived with through our early years that meat is full of protein, a real essential to keep us healthy.

But few people really have a clear idea of how much protein they take in every day, what the official recommendations for protein levels are, or indeed what protein really does.

Proteins are small molecules called amino acids. See a picture and they look a bit like weird tiny Lego; they link themselves together like beads on a string which then fold into complex shapes.
These small molecules are the main building blocks of our body and are involved in making muscles, tendons, organs and skins plus they are involved in the health of numerous bodily activities such as enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters.

Without proteins we would not exist. Some can be produced inside our body, but many of the proteins, or essential amino acids as they can be called, can only be obtained through diet.

Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products all contain high levels of protein, so if you include these in your diet, then you don’t really need to count protein levels as you should be taking in adequate levels. However, obtaining good enough quantities of protein from other food sources can be quite challenging. There are some outstanding alternatives such as lentils and even green peas which offer lots of protein, but generally vegans and vegetarians need to assess their diet very carefully to ensure they are taking in adequate amounts.

Which comes back to a basic question of how much protein do we need.

The British Nutrition Foundation stated that the official Reference Nutrient Intake figures states that as a general figure, 0.75 grams of protein are needed every day for each kilogram of your bodyweight. Generally, it is recommended that for people aged between 19-50 years old, men need around 56 grams per day and woman a little less at 45 grams a day.

There is less readily available information on protein intake for the over 50s. It is generally accepted that as we age, we naturally lose muscle mass and this can lead to a number of related problems. Also of course most of us know it is now good to keep exercising as we get older. So clearly it is important to keep our muscles strong.

Now there is increasing information coming out that as we age the recommended levels of protein are not enough. It seems that as we get older we should start looking at really start lifting our protein levels quite significantly. Specialist Il-Young Kim of the Centre for Translational Research in Aging and Longevity in College Station, Texas, says that research is showing that pumping up protein intake really can boost health in older people. Kim says that for maximal muscle, the majority of older adults need to consume around 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. He also recommends getting the bulk of protein from animal sources because animal protein contains all of the essential amino acids the body needs. Kim believes most adults tend to get less of their protein from animal sources as they get older, and states that plants rarely contain all the essential amino acids needed unless very carefully selected.

Another study on similar lines, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in America, involved healthy adults aged between 52 and 75 years of age. In this group, those who ate double the recommended levels of protein (1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight) greatly increased their rate of muscle protein synthesis – this is the process by which cells use protein to build muscle.

All this doesn’t mean to say you can’t obtain all the nutrition you need from a vegan or vegetarian diet. But it does indicate that as we age, we need to look at our diet carefully and ensure we are taking in all the key essentials include adequate protein to help keep us fit and healthy through the years ahead.

For those looking at a vegan or vegetarian diet, there is some useful information at

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