Sun, Jan-07-24, 14:48
The anti-ageing benefits of eating protein
The anti-ageing benefits of eating protein
Midlife often means weight gain and muscle loss — but upping your protein intake could change that
Dr Gabrielle Lyon
Many people struggle with gaining weight in midlife. I hear it every day in my practice, with patients saying they are eating the same as they ever have and exercising the same amount, but putting on weight.
Our muscle health declines naturally, starting in about our thirties, in a process known as sarcopenia. By the age of fifty, muscle mass decreases at an annual rate of 1-2%. The lost muscle is often replaced by fat.
Added to this natural ageing process, we often become less active than we were in our 20s, more prone to injury and often eating a sub-par diet. This can create the perfect storm, leading to weight gain in middle age and beyond.
The danger of dieting without eating more protein
There are two fundamental principles to maintaining and even building muscle at any age: doing resistance exercises and eating a higher-protein diet. But the problem with the way many of us have traditionally dieted – and what I see a lot of middle-aged women do especially – is eat fewer and fewer calories, but not enough protein.
The result is that their muscle continues to waste away, their metabolism slows and, as a result, losing weight becomes ever harder. The old message that if you want to lose weight, you simply have to eat less and move more is outdated.
If you’re actively trying to lose weight, then yes, you need to be in calorie deficit. But as you cut your calories, you must also up the percentage of protein in your overall intake to protect muscle mass.
We are facing an obesity epidemic – but I believe that current medical advice is failing people and I’m on a mission to change that. I’ve seen up close how people with obesity struggle to lose weight, despite following the outdated advice of just cutting calories, doing more cardio but not paying attention to the amount of protein on the plate.
As we’re finding, increasing protein really is the solution – it helps you to feel full in the short term while improving your body composition in the longer term.
Why we need more protein in midlife and beyond
There are so many benefits of a protein-rich diet, including better balanced blood sugar, increased energy, mental clarity, decreased body fat and reduced cravings. It is crucial for longevity and repairing your body’s tissues.
But most midlife women I see are not eating enough. And I would argue that many people of all ages are not eating enough good-quality protein.
In the UK, Government guidelines for adults is 0.75g protein per kilo of body weight (or if you work in pounds, around 1g per 3 pounds of body weight). But these guidelines – as in the US – were created in the 1970s as a minimum level to prevent deficiencies; it’s not optimal by any stretch of the imagination.
How much protein we really need
My prescription for all adults is at least 1g per 1lb of your ideal body weight per day (or if you work in kilos, about 2.2g per 1kg of ideal body weight).
If you’re trying to lose weight and are on a reduced calorie diet, I suggest up to 1g per 1lb of ideal body weight, or even higher. On top of this, I recommend that the first and last meal of the day should contain at least 30g of protein. There is increasing evidence to show that if you eat 30-50g of protein for breakfast, it sets up your metabolism appropriately, controls hunger and stimulates muscle tissue.
To visualise 30g of protein, this equates to a large chicken breast or fish fillet, or a medium-sized steak or chop, but many more eggs than you might imagine – around five or six. If you’re stuck for inspiration, I send out a free newsletter with recipes containing 30g of protein each week. These are things that I eat with my family, such as egg and cheese frittatas and air-fried salmon bites.
Steak is better than vegan burgers
I personally eat a lot of red meat – I even have steak for breakfast some days. Red meat has had a bad rap, but a good-quality steak is so much better for your body than ultra-processed plant-based foods like meat-free burgers. Really good-quality meat – by which I mean grass-fed and organic – should be considered a superfood because it delivers so many of the nutrients we need, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. It’s also a natural source of creatine, which may improve short-term memory.
There have been some reports saying a high-protein diet can lead to kidney dysfunction but several studies now tell us otherwise.
Muscle is the fountain of youth
Muscle should be seen as your body’s armour, protecting you from disease. There are multiple reasons why we develop Alzheimer’s, for example, but new research published in the British Medical Journal has found that if we build up our lean muscle mass it may help prevent it. It is still unclear why - one theory is that it is down to an increase in proteins circulating in the body. Nutrition and exercise programmes can help with recovery from all kinds of disease, including improving cancer outcomes.
We are all interested in living not only longer, but a better quality of life as we age, and the best way to safeguard your independence is to protect your skeletal muscle mass. According to NHS data, around 1 in 3 adults over 65 and half of people over 80 will have at least one fall a year, with the WHO reporting the second most common cause of accidental death is injury from a fall. Increased muscle mass reduces your risk of falling.
This is the long view, but even in the short term you will experience huge benefits from maintaining and building muscle. Increased muscle helps almost every function in the body, from sleep to energy, and even boosts your libido, thanks to increased production of testosterone. Extra muscle also helps you to get or stay lean and manage your weight in midlife and beyond.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I see higher muscle mass as the fountain of youth.
Good to see Dr Lyon featured in the UK media today