DEAR DR. BLONZ: My parents, now in their 80s, say that they no longer have any real appetite, or at least nothing compared with earlier in life. For them, eating has become more of an obligation and a social event than something driven by hunger. Whenever I eat over at their house, they don’t eat much of anything, especially protein. They have a piece of fish every now and then, but usually split an entree when eating out at a restaurant. They eat vegetables and fruit at most meals, and have cereal with milk or an occasional egg for breakfast.
Like them, I am not a big meat eater, but I know we need protein. How much of a problem is this? -- V.N., Oakland, California
DEAR V.N.: Protein deficiencies are a serious issue in developing countries, where protein foods are scarce and unaffordable, and such deficiencies can be life-threatening. In the U.S. and Canada, however, people tend to eat too much protein, rather than not enough. This being said, your concerns about your parents’ diets are not groundless.
For well-nourished people, occasionally taking in less protein than required will not pose a problem. It only becomes problematic if insufficient protein intake is a regular event. Depending on the length and degree, symptoms of an ongoing protein deficiency could include: increased susceptibility to disease, poor wound healing, fatigue, anemia, hair and skin problems, mental confusion, pallor, digestive disturbances, muscle wasting and weight loss. Many of these are symptoms generally associated with aging.
Surveys have shown that a large proportion of the elderly eat below the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein, with the lowest amount being consumed by the homebound elderly. Such surveys have gone almost unnoticed because the levels involved weren’t very far below the RDA. Some studies have reported that the elderly may actually have higher protein requirements than other adults. Such research raises serious questions as to whether a chronic protein deficiency may be contributing to the decline of the elderly -- more than was previously thought.
The official RDA for adults is 11 grams of protein for every 30 pounds of body weight. This would be about 55 grams of protein for a 150-pound individual. However, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that individuals over 60 years of age should opt for about 14 to 17 grams of protein per day for every 30 pounds of body weight. By this formula, a 150-pound adult over age 60 should aim for a daily protein intake of 70 to 85 grams per day. (Note: Your ideal body weight -- not necessarily the number you currently see on the scale -- is the one to use. See the calculator at tinyurl.com/y9a4m2gk.)
For reference, there are approximately 30-35 grams of protein in a 4-ounce piece of lean fish, meat or chicken, which is about the size of a pack of playing cards. Protein is also present in nuts, seeds, dairy, grains and legumes. You can view the nutrient content of individual foods using the USDA database at ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb.
While it is important to get the protein we need, keep in mind that our bodies are not set up to store excess protein for later use. Overindulgence with this relatively expensive type of food causes the body to treat it as excess calories; it becomes fat and gets stored as such. There is no buzzer when we reach our requirements; we have to make ourselves aware of what we consume.
Protein adequacy can become a problem as we age, so think of that big picture, both for your parents and yourself. A healthful approach to protein, fats, carbohydrates, and whole fruits and vegetables should always be the driving element.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.