“With just a few simple dietary changes and consistent activity, it is possible for an 80-year-old to look, perform, and feel better than they did at 40-years-old.”
By Nolan Lepkoske
Sarcopenia is defined as age related, involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass, strength, and function. Beginning as early as the age of 35, evidence suggests that skeletal muscle mass and skeletal muscle strength decline in a near-linear fashion, with up to half of the mass being lost by the 80th year. Researchers and personal trainers alike have noticed that even in the aging population who maintain active lifestyles and engage in intense training, this loss of muscle is nearly unavoidable. It can lead to physical disability, falls, fractures, frailty, reduced quality of life, increased healthcare cost, and generally increased risk of mortality. First recognized as a disease in 2016 by the World Health Organization, Sarcopenia is a condition that will affect nearly every person who lives to the age of 50 and may significantly impact those who live longer. There is no true ‘cure’ for sarcopenia, and it is a degenerative disease that grows much worse over time. Thankfully, there are several tactics that have been shown to have a positive impact and slow/reduce the progression of the disease.
For decades, people have tried to find the “magic answer” as to how they can age as gracefully as possible. They have explored different training modalities, so called “superfoods”, or even drugs. Surprisingly, there has always been a very simple answer; eat more protein. It has been estimated that as much as 40% of the adult population in the United States does not consume even the recommended daily allowance of protein (0.5 g/kg/day or about 1 g/lb./day). Most experts in the field of aging nutrition recommend about 2 g/lb./day of protein and even more for anyone over the age of 18. By following a high protein diet, you can reduce the rate of muscle and strength loss by as much as 50% per year! This is a staggering amount when you realize that the same person could show similar levels of muscle mass, strength, and function for an 80-year-old as they showed at 50-years-old.
However, research has also shown that there is a threshold beyond which the anabolic response for protein consumption in the elderly experiences a sharp decrease. Consuming more protein gives diminishing returns. In addition, it is not suggested that someone ignore the other macronutrients or even micronutrients. Carbohydrates, fats, and various vitamins and minerals should also be consumed to reach peak performance. In many cases they can be more important to consume than pure protein. A typical high-protein diet that also includes appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and nearly all major vitamins and minerals for a 160-pound man could look like this:
Breakfast: 412 calories, 29 grams of protein, 18 grams of carbs, 24 grams of fat-3 large eggs-1 medium-size tomato-1 cup of 2% milk -1 serving of raw avocado
Snack: 121 calories, 2 grams of protein, 28 grams of carbs, 0 grams of fat-1 banana
Lunch: 635 calories, 55 grams of protein, 59 grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of fat-6 ounces of 93% lean ground beef-4 ounces of angel hair pasta-6 ounces of sweet potato
Snack: 124 calories, 24 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fat-1 scoop of whey protein mixed in water
Dinner: 712 calories, 58 grams of protein, 70 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of fat-6 ounces of 93% ground beef-8 ounces of rice-1 cup of broccoli-1 serving of avocado
Total: 2004 calories, 168 grams protein, 179 grams carbohydrates, 58 grams fat.
While this example may not show a perfect diet for every person to follow, it may help to understand how you can improve body composition and how well you perform in your day-to-day life, even as you age. With just a few simple dietary changes and consistent activity, it is possible for an 80-year-old to look, perform, and feel better than they did at 40-years-old.
In addition to dietary intervention, another factor that has been shown to improve outcomes in cases of sarcopenia is including resistance training. While specific guidelines have not been recognized for the prevention of sarcopenia, a meta-analysis, of 20 studies conducted regarding age-related muscle loss, its prevention, and nutrition and exercise methods was conducted. They were able to conclude that if elderly populations performed resistance training up to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines outlined by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, that outcomes for the subjects of the study were positive in nearly every case. These exercise standards recommend that older populations participate in nonspecific strengthening exercises twice per week. Because the standard given is so vague, it is quite telling about how important resistance training is, even if it is done at a relatively low intensity and very few times per week. One of the most telling outcomes that can be seen in many of the studies was an improved performance in sit-to-stand time, a test that is particularly useful in elderly populations.
Naseeb, Manal A., and Stella L. Volpe. “Protein and Exercise in the Prevention of Sarcopenia and Aging.” Department of Nutrition Sciences Drexel University, 9 Jan. 2017, pp. 1–20.
Oliveira, Camila L.p., et al. “Are Canadian Protein and Physical Activity Guidelines Optimal for Sarcopenia Prevention in Older Adults?” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, vol. 43, no. 12, 2018, pp. 1215–1223., doi:10.1139/apnm-2018-0141.
Rus, Grace E., et al. “Nutrition Interventions Implemented in Hospital to Lower Risk of Sarcopenia in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials.” Nutrition & Dietetics, vol. 77, no. 1, 2020, pp. 90–102., doi:10.1111/1747-0080.12608.