I am in my 60s. I was having a conversation with someone who has become a vegan since becoming a senior. He states that we seniors no longer need the protein from meats. He believes that our bodies do better when we receive our proteins from other sources other than animals. Is there truth to this?
– John D.
To maintain muscle mass and strength (which begin to decline in one’s 50s), older adults need a protein-rich diet. Because of a decline in protein digestion with age (see italicized below), protein needs for seniors are higher than those of other adults (1.0 gm/kg vs. 0.8 gm/kg). Some evidence supports that plant proteins contribute more to muscle strength, while animal protein helps preserve mass.*
While animal protein sources boast more B-12, vitamin D, heme-iron, and zinc, plant proteins are by far healthier in the long run. With a diet rich in plant proteins, there’s a lower incidence of cancer, reduced inflammation, lower risk of heart disease, improved insulin sensitivity, and the list goes on! With plant protein, you get fiber and phytonutrients from the whole food source instead of saturated fat and cholesterol with animal proteins.
Regardless of protein source, intake should be spread throughout the day and protein included with each meal.
Digestion of protein is dependent on mechanical breakdown and gut enzymes. Stomach acids are needed to unravel the proteins into peptide strands so that enzymes in the small intestine can cleave them into individual amino acids for absorption. Both stomach acid and enzyme production tend to decline with age, making protein digestion less efficient.
*Higher Protein Intake is Associated with Higher Lean Mass and Quadriceps Muscle Strength in Adult Men and Women. S Sahni, et al. The Journal of Nutrition July 2015. Vol. 145 (7):1569-75. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.204925
– Debbie J., MS, RD
This article should not replace any exercise program or restrictions, any dietary supplements or restrictions, or any other medical recommendations from your primary care physician. Before starting any exercise program or diet, make sure it is approved by your doctor.
Some questions have been edited for length and/or clarity.