Protein: Muscle Building and Sarcopenia (Part 2)

My podcast review of protein continues. If you missed part 1, go back and start there. To remind you, I reviewed protein recommendations as compared to protein intake in the US. I also talked about how our body can actually use protein. Today we continue, with how to actually get that protein, and why it matters - especially as we age.

Protein in Real Life

If the body can only use between 25-35 grams of protein at a time, that's a number worth looking at. But what does 20-30 grams of protein mean when it comes to actual food?

  • 4 ounces of meat or seafood

  • 3-4 eggs

  • 1 1/2 cups of lentils

  • 1 cup of beans over 1 cup of brown rice or quinoa

  • 1-2 scoops protein powder (depending on the brand)

  • 1 cup of Greek yogurt

When you consider the recommendation of getting 20-30 grams of protein three times a day (minimum), this might not make for a high protein diet. However, it might be higher than your current diet.

High quality protein is important. The quality of protein is dependent on which amino acids are in the proteins, and how easily your body can access those amino acids. In general, animal proteins are complete (i.e. contain all amino acids the body needs) while plant-based proteins are not. However, the most important thing is that you're choosing a range and variety of protein sources. This ensures that you get all the amino acids, similar to what we find in our muscles.

Protein as We Age

Around age 40, you start to gradually lose muscle and function - to the tune of about 1% of your muscle mass each year. Yikes! (This is really similar to osteoporosis and natural bone loss over time.) Many people just accept this as part of life. They make adaptations in their lifestyle to get by with less muscle. But then life puts them to the test, and they realize there is a problem. For instance, one day you may find that you are unable to catch yourself as you lose your balance and fall.

You've probably heard the phrase "use it or lose it" when it comes to muscle. Yes and yes and yes. Just being on bedrest can cause a significant loss in muscle mass. Unfortunately, as you age, the likelihood and frequency of bedrest increases. You want to ensure that you are in good status before a health crisis hits you.

Protein and Exercise

There is good news to this story. You can prevent and delay muscle loss through - you guessed it - exercise. Added bonus? The more muscle you have the better your metabolism is. Of course both the muscle and the metabolic benefits depend on you actually using the muscle. It's not good enough to just take selfies of your guns. You gotta use 'em. Strength training is important throughout life, but even more so as you age.

[Side note: remember that 1% loss per year after 40? That's a big part of the decreased metabolism that you experience after 40.]

For those of you who are somewhat adverse to exercise, I want to challenge you to think about it differently. Maybe exercise has a horrible connotation for you. Maybe you associate it with weight loss and diets and obligation and misery. What if - instead - you chose to infuse a new meaning to exercise - that it was your key to stress management and improved quality of life? What if "exercise" was about getting out there and enjoying the fact that your body still works?


Research tells us that there is about a 25% improvement in muscle building and muscle retention when you distribute protein over the course of the day, as compared to back-loading it at dinner. On a day-to-day basis, this might not be huge. But over the long haul, it can really add up.

Consider adding a good source of protein to your breakfast, lunch and snacks. Add some protein to your post-workout recovery. But don't sweat the calculations, there is no need to obsess over protein.

For more help on customizing to your own diet, lifestyle, and health goals, email me about a consultation. Or find a dietitian near you through the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

And don't forget to check out Melissa Joy Dobbins's podcast. You won't be disappointed!


Katie Goldberg

Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LDN, has been a registered dietitian since 2013, but has always had a passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle. Katie earned her Master’s of Clinical Nutrition from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has worked in private practice, higher education, in a clinical setting, and as an in-house dietitian for a food company. Whether it's at through large groups or one-on-one, Katie enjoys connecting people with easy and practical solutions for better health.