A balanced diet is essential for good health. It requires a combination of the three major food groups – carbohydrates, protein and fat – as well a number of other micronutrients commonly referred to as vitamins and minerals. Consuming the right quantities of different foods ensures that person gets a sufficient supply of macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) and micronutrients. One of the major types of food which is often neglected in the diet of the elderly is protein. Yet protein is of particular importance for the elderly and can significantly impact on health in the senior years.
Protein is the central structural component of the human body and constitutes every cell and every part of each cell. It is not the only building block in the body but protein makes up even the smallest components like the individual genes to the larger cellular components like the cell membrane. Protein is also the structural element of enzymes that regulate biological processes, are carrier substances which transports nutrients and wastes through the body and constitute blood components like those responsible for clotting.
Although protein is present in some quantity in most foods, there are certain foods that are rich in protein. High protein foods include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, soy, beans, legumes and nuts. Protein is broken down into simpler compounds, known as amino acids, when digested. Some of these amino acids are termed essential meaning that the body needs it from the diet. Other amino acids are labeled as non-essential meaning that while it is important, the body can make it from the essential amino acids. A third group of amino acids are classified as conditional in that it is needed most at the time of illness and stress.
There is a gradual loss of muscle mass with age. This is known as sarcopenia. It is partly due to a more sedentary lifestyle in the senior years but is also an age-related process that is largely unavoidable. Maintaining muscle mass or at the very least slowing down muscle loss depends on two factors – an adequate protein intake and physical activity. Even in the elderly who have already experienced muscle loss, these two measures are important ways to improve muscle mass.
Bone mineral density gradually declines with age for very much the same reasons as the loss of muscle mass. It is well known that a good intake of calcium, magnesium and vitamin D are essential for bone health but protein is also important. It impacts on the absorption of calcium and therefore the calcification of bone which is an important process for maintaining bone strength. Furthermore, greater muscle mass associated with a higher protein intake increases the force on the bones during movement which then helps stimulate to bone density.
Protein is necessary for both bone and muscle health apart from the host of other health benefits. Various studies have shown that an adequate protein intake can reduce bone fracture rates. By maintaining a good muscle mass and bone health, the elderly will also find themselves less likely to sustain falls or serious injuries from it, maintain mobility and therefore have a greater degree of independence. Even in the face of age-related deterioration of the musculoskeletal system, protein along with other nutrients can play a major role in slowing down this natural process associated with advancing age.
The problem, however, is that protein is often lacking in the diet even in the absence of disorders that cause protein deficiency. This low dietary intake of protein in the elderly occurs for various reasons. Firstly the reduced appetite with age and inability to tolerate certain foods may mean that protein intake is reduced. This is often seen in the elderly who opt for simple diets that are low in essential nutrients as is the case with the tea and toast diet. The other aspect is economic factors as the elderly may be living on a tight budget and high protein foods are often more expensive than foods high in carbohydrates and fat.