Healthy protein options
Protein: A Secret Weapon for Women (and Men) Over 45

We don’t store protein. We ARE protein.

We’re literally made out of protein (except some key parts like the brain which are made out of fat!)

If we were cars, carbohydrates would be the gasoline, while proteins would be the chassis, the seats, and all the spare parts we get at NAPA when things wear out.

So as we repair and rebuild and replace our cells each day, we need to go back to the auto parts store and eat a fresh supply of protein. If not, the body will take the protein it needs from other areas, like rarely used muscles. That’s not what we want!

Why is protein a secret weapon for women (and men) over 45? For at least two key reasons:

1. Protein helps preserve our strength and abilities after age 30 (!)

Yes, at about age 31 onward, there’s a gradual decline in lean mass, power, and the ability to do things with our bodies! See this link (but why is it all about men?). Quick, the good news: We can stop and even reverse this decline, with well-designed exercise and yes, adequate protein intake.

2. Protein keeps us full and satisfied

Are you trying to reduce excess body fat, but you don’t want to run around hungry? Me too. Note that protein is more filling per calorie than either fats or carbohydrates. Have you ever noticed that an egg breakfast carried you farther into the day without hunger, compared to a bagel or pastry with the same calorie count?

Interesting idea: do we still feel hunger until we’ve gotten enough protein? That’s the “protein leverage theory” — basically, that our bodies can sense whether we’ve had enough protein for the day, and they will tell us to keep eating until we do. There’s evidence that this is true for animals, so why not us?

Ready to eat a little more protein? But how, and how much?

The guidelines for protein consumption are that it should be from 10 to 35% of your daily calories. That’s a huge range. And what does that actually mean in practice?

  • In my case, my target calorie intake is about 1700 calories/day.
  • 10% of that is 170 calories.
  • Pure protein has 4 calories per gram,
  • so 10% of my daily calories would be 42.5 grams of protein (similar to the general recommended daily minimum for women: 46 grams).

That’s the minimum. As in, what I need to stay alive and carry out the necessary bodily repairs each day.

OK, what does 42.5 grams (or 46 grams) of protein look like?

An egg has about 7 grams. A piece of salmon the size of the palm of my hand (4 ounces) has about 23 grams of protein. Here’s a great printable chart listing the protein content of common foods in grams.

I could cover my daily protein needs for tomorrow with a good-sized piece of salmon and one cup of curried chickpeas. Plus I’d get some more in any dairy products, greens and whole grains I might eat, among other things.

That’s not so hard. But I know there have been some days in my past when I didn’t reach that level. And again, that’s the minimum.

It’s very likely that we need more than that to prevent muscle loss with aging, and we definitely need more if we are working on rebuilding and improving our strength and physical capacities ?

So do we want to rush all the way up to the top end of the scale, then — 35% of daily calories? For me, that would be 148.75 grams of protein. Yikes, that’s a lot! I’ve tried to get that much, and I found I had to resort to supplements like whey protein powder, and to stay within my calorie budget while boosting my protein, I had to cut down on other healthy foods like whole grains, legumes and olive oil — not ideal.

So, the sweet spot lies somewhere between 46 (minimum) and 148 (exhausting mega-load) grams per day. But where, and how do we find it?

As with so many other factors in health, the best approach is likely to try out a reasonable change and see how you feel.

If you’re a bit geeky like me, you might start by counting the grams of protein you’re consuming for a few days in a row, to see where you stand. Are you getting 40 grams? 50? 60 or more? If you eat natural foods with no labels (a good idea), just search online for the name of the food and “nutrition” and you’ll get the protein data.

Or even easier, just add a serving or two of lean protein to your typical menu each day for a week and see what effect it has on you.

  • Do you feel more satisfied between meals?
  • Do you recover better from exercise?
  • Do you have fewer food cravings in the evenings?

Lean, lean, what does it mean?

We’re always hearing nutritionists talking about “lean protein sources.” Now that I’ve been working on increasing my protein (since December 2020), I really understand why. One big problem is that some common protein sources, like red meat, cheese and nuts, also have a high fat content, and others, like beans and legumes, come with plenty of carbohydrates, so it’s hard to reach a high protein target with those foods without going way over my daily calorie budget. So if we’re trying to increase our protein intake substantially, lean protein sources (with most of their calories coming from protein) are the true secret weapon.

Some good lean protein sources are fish, shrimp, white meats, tempeh, non-fried tofu, egg whites, and nonfat dairy products. I’ll list easy and practical ways to add these lean proteins to your eating plan in my next post!

Timing is important

One more factor: because we’re using protein to repair our bodies, and we don’t really store it, spacing protein intake throughout the day, rather than having one huge protein-rich meal, is preferable, especially in older people. I’m looking at you, breakfast! And after a workout, when you’ve stressed your body, it’s important to eat a serving of protein (along with some carbs), ideally within an hour, to support the repair and recovery process.

Too much protein?

Of course; like anything, protein can be overdone. Going over the guideline of 35% of calories could overburden the kidneys, among other negative effects. And protein beyond what is needed for bodily repair is just burned for fuel or stored as fat, which is not our plan.

We sometimes hear that “Americans already eat too much protein” — but this is a story focused on younger American men and teenaged boys. I think it’s highly unlikely for any women over 45. Over 35% of your calories is a LOT of protein and hard to get from natural foods.

Protein and vegetables: “Pay the rent first”

Since I’m making such a big deal about protein here, I also need to say, in case someone is reading who doesn’t know me, that a wide variety of plant foods and good fats (as found in olive oil, fatty fish, flaxseed, walnuts, etc.) are also key to a healthy eating plan as we age. Protein keeps us strong, but the good fats keep our brain/immune system functioning well, and the vegetables/fruits/beans/legumes/whole grains fight inflammation and cancer and so many other things that might drag us down. Think of your daily calories as a budget, and “pay the rent first” by starting with your grams of protein and servings of whole plant foods and good fats, then add your “discretionary spending” on top.

So how do we add more protein without eating a bunch of red meat?

Glad you asked — I’ve been working on this since December. It’s definitely not a good idea, health-wise, to add a ton of red meat and processed meats like salami and bacon to your eating plan. Fortunately, there are many healthy options to choose from, including beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, white meats, eggs, dairy products, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and leafy greens — yes, leafy greens, that’s where huge animals like cows, horses and bison get their protein!

My next post will be all about practical and healthy ways to add a bit more protein to your eating plan, stay tuned! Thanks for reading, and please let me know how your protein experiments are going!

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