Nutrition in old age

30. January 2020

Physical decline in old age can be delayed with good nutrition. Getting enough protein is important. The best tips.

The world population is getting older. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the percentage of over 60-year-olds will rise from 12% to 22% by 2050. However, choosing a smart diet to supplement sports and exercise can keep the negative aspects of ageing at bay.

Italian researcher Claudio Franceschi has been researching symptom-free and «successful» ageing for a long time. Franceschi also headed the 12-million euro European project «NU-AGE», which is concerned with nutrition for healthy ageing. The main finding of NU-AGE was that the Mediterranean diet abates one of the causes of ageing described by Franceschi in 2000: low-threshold, chronic inflammation in the body. With the Mediterranean diet, there is also a lower incidence of practically all diseases of civilisation, ranging from diabetes to heart diseases to Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. In short: the Mediterranean diet keeps you healthy.


Basic diet plus «muscle food»

The Mediterranean diet is without doubt a very smart basic diet. For those who do sports, however, the question arises as to whether it is in itself enough or whether additional nutritional measures are required for symptom-free ageing that is also as powerful as possible.

The basis of these considerations: a central feature for independent ageing (and for sports) is functioning muscles. In addition to a regular training stimulus, they require an optimised intake of protein, which should not only begin at an advanced age. Researchers are still arguing as to when exactly muscular atrophy in humans begins. Signs can already be found from the age of 40 and every debate ends at the start of 50. There is, however, a gap in the diet, because specific recommendations are only available for the 60-plus or even 65-year-olds. This is not exactly ideal.

Protein is increasingly important

Protein is essential for preserving muscles and the protein requirement increases with old age. In the age of the climate debate and the corresponding negative evaluation of meat and milk production, the discussion about protein has admittedly become tricky. Unless vegetable proteins and animal proteins are deemed equivalent. From a scientific point of view, however, this would not be «clean». If you take into account the lower digestibility, lower content of individual essential amino acids, as well as the partly enormously higher non-protein content in vegetable protein, then you need to reckon with up to double the amount of vegetable proteins to achieve the same effect as proteins of animal origin.

Augmenting the processing of a plant, e.g. for the production of a protein isolate, and a targeted combination of vegetable proteins can improve their effectiveness. But the evaluation of such mixtures is complex, and you would need to individually assess each protein mixture. This is anything but user-friendly.

From the age of 50 onwards, maintaining optimally functioning muscles for sports and life in general requires eating around 1.5 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body mass per day. The 0.8 grams frequently mentioned in official recommendations are too low. They were derived as a minimum quantity without taking the optimal functionality of muscles or other body proteins into account. From the age of 50, around 30 grams of protein per main meal are also required. A 60-kilo woman can thus spread the required 90 grams of protein over three main meals, each with 30 grams of protein. Those who are heavier and require more total protein can, in addition to their main meals, either derive the remaining protein from snacks or increase the protein content in their meals.

Mediterranean plus proteins

Due to the potential muscle loss, controlling your body weight from the age of 50 is the first step towards successful ageing. It therefore makes sense to weigh yourself on a weekly basis. Those who get their complete protein from vegetable sources will need to double the recommended quantities for good measure. The necessary volume of food, however, will quickly get very large. The amount of food with proteins of animal origin remains manageable. And milk proteins also give you decent amounts of calcium, for which your bones are extremely grateful.

The bottom line for all sporty «50-plus» people: a protein-packed Mediterranean diet is the diet of choice. Thus, nothing is standing in the way of successfully getting older without low-threshold, chronic inflammation and with the optimal support of muscles that function as well as possible.