Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Aging, Muscle Loss & the Protein Connection

Did you know that declining muscle mass and strength are expected consequences of aging? That’s right, expected. There’s even a fancy name for this phenomenon: sarcopenia. And by the time we reach age 40 or so, we’ve all got it… to some degree.

Fortunately, the degree to which sarcopenia affects us is determined not only by our age, but also by modifiable factors, namely diet and lifestyle. Eating the right foods in the right amounts, getting adequate exercise, and keeping inflammation and stress levels at bay are all important in the quest to maintain lean body mass and minimize sarcopenia as we age.

Nutritionally speaking, an anti-sarcopenia diet will include plenty of alkaline foods, omega-3 fatty acids, high antioxidant superfoods, and more. But today, I’m going to focus on what is probably the most crucial dietary weapon against sarcopenia: protein.

I’ve never been a big fan of high protein diets. All my training in detoxification, Natural Hygiene principles and raw food/vegetarian nutrition has indicated that human beings do not require vast amounts of protein, and that standard protein requirements are set way too high. The arguments made by leaders in these fields are persuasive, and in the past, I’ve always agreed. Even when earning my masters degree in human nutrition, I secretly scoffed when taught that adult protein needs, when calculated in grams per kilogram of body weight, average between 50 and 60 grams daily. I knew better!

Well now, I’m not so sure. The changes I can observe in my own well-cleansed, mid-life body indicate that perhaps I could use a little more protein myself. And what might these changes be? Well, I haven’t put on weight – in fact, I weigh less than I did in my twenties. But the feeling of me has changed. So I’m pretty sure that some of my lost weight is due to a shift in body composition, a shift towards decreased muscle mass.

The thing is, I want my muscle back! And apparently, eating more protein not only can help, it is imperative. At least according to a compelling new study I read on frail, elderly people with sarcopenia. This research showed quite convincingly that obtaining adequate protein through supplementation (i.e. protein shakes) was absolutely required to help aging bodies regain lean mass.

A team of researchers, led by Michael Tieland, published the double-blind, placebo-controlled study in the Netherlands just this year. Participants were divided into two groups. Both groups took part in identical resistance exercise training programs, twice weekly for 24 weeks. One group consumed a twice daily shake, containing 15 g of protein, after breakfast and lunch. The other group drank a placebo shake, containing no protein.

Both groups of frail, elderly exercisers got great results from the study. Both groups experienced improved muscle strength, enhanced functional performance, and no further muscle loss. But only the people who were consuming additional protein gained new muscle.

The researchers concluded that 1) strength training remains a superior method for preventing muscle loss and improving quality of life in people with sarcopenia, and 2) adequate/increased protein consumption is required to increase skeletal muscle tissue. This means that if you’ve lost lean body mass over time, you need to exercise AND consume more protein to get your muscle back.

This makes perfect sense when you consider that muscles are made of proteins, which in turn, are made of amino acid “building blocks”. You can’t build anything without adequate building materials (e.g. amino acids), even if you have all the best tools (e.g. exercise) available with which to do the job. Without those amino acids at the ready, more muscle just ain’t happening. And where do fresh, new amino acids come from? Food.

With the findings of this new study in mind, I have decided to try a little personal experimentation with my protein consumption levels, which admittedly, for some time, have been low according to standard thinking.

To begin, I need to calculate my daily protein requirements using the formula outlined below:

Calculating Daily Protein Needs in Grams per Kilogram (g/kg):
1. Divide weight in pounds by 2.2 to determine weight in kg
2. Multiply weight in kg by a factor of 0.8-1.8 to determine g/kg protein needed daily

Use a lower number (i.e. 0.8) if you are in good health, sedentary and young. Use a higher number (from 1.0 to 1.8) if you have age-related loss of lean body mass (sarcopenia) or if you have high stress, are physically very active or are recovering from an illness or injury.

Note: In the Netherlands study cited above, the addition of 30 grams supplemental protein increased average daily protein intake of participants from 1.0 g/kg body weight to 1.3 g/kg body weight.

When I plug my numbers into the formula above, I come up with a protein range of 45 to 65 grams per day – way more than I’m used to consuming. So I’m going to start by shooting for a modest 50. Normally, I don’t like to count anything I eat (calories, carbs, etc.) but until I start to get an intuitive feel for how much protein different foods contain, and how much of them I need to eat to meet my needs, it will be useful to do a little figuring.

I’m also looking into purchasing a consumer-grade body composition monitor to track my progress. These “super scales” use bio-impedance technology to calculate not only total body weight, but also lean body mass, body fat and total body water percentages. Reputedly, the home units are far less accurate than some of the ultra-pricey professional models in terms of giving an exact reading, but they appear to be very useful in terms of tracking change over time. And progress over time is what interests me.

Transitioning my nutritional focus away from juicing and cleansing towards building and sustaining healthy body composition via increased protein consumption represents a HUGE philosophical shift for me! But the multi-faceted concept of “eating to evolve” naturally implies adaptation. Flexibility, and a willingness to flow with changes that present themselves – both inside my body, and outside in the world of science and research – are necessary for personal evolution. So, I say: bring it.

No one has all the answers, and the questions keep changing. The best we can hope for is to continue learning and growing. And what I learn, I feel blessed to share here with you. Stay tuned for more on vegetarian protein sources, anti-sarcopenia tips, recipes and photos as we explore this new direction together.

In strength and health, Diana ♥

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