One Key to Muscle Strength as You Age: Eat Protein at Every Meal

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Did you ever wonder why you rarely see a really old bodybuilder? That’s because we all lose muscle as we age. Is there a simple way to slow this decline? According to one new study, it may be as simple as what you eat and when.

Muscle Decline Is a Fact of Aging

Muscle decline, or degeneration, is a fact of aging. The terminology for this loss of muscle and as we age is sarcopenia, while the loss of muscle strength that results is termed dynapenia. Muscle loss and decline can occur due to certain disease conditions (e.g., diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.); however, today we are focusing on muscle decline due getting older.

Interestingly, as we exercise, this damages our muscles, and it’s the natural repair process that builds up the muscle and strengthens it. So each time we exercise, it’s this damage-repair process that builds our muscles. Amino acids are the key to muscle repair, and we get our amino acids from protein (meats, fish, peanut butter, eggs, etc.). Today’s feature study suggests that as we age, keeping our muscles strong isn’t just about getting enough protein each day but about balancing our protein intake throughout the day.

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When You Eat More Protein Is Important

The new study out of Canada consisted of more than 1,700 subjects (age 67–84). The participants recorded their diets for a period of three years and underwent strength and mobility testing annually. The results? Muscle strength and physical abilities declined in the group as a whole; however, those who recorded a more balanced protein intake throughout each day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) retained more muscle strength than their counterparts who ate the majority of their protein at dinner.

Study researchers concluded that we should distribute protein intake more evenly throughout the day so our bodies can most efficiently utilize it to build and strengthen muscle. While this study focused on an elderly population, balancing protein intake could be beneficial for any age. Also, while the scope of this study only looked at balancing, not increasing, our daily protein intake, it does highlight scientific evidence that suggests older people do need to increase their overall daily allowance of protein to get enough amino acids for proper protein synthesis.

What Would This Look Like?

Eating more protein at breakfast and lunch is easy. For breakfast, the best source of protein is eggs. Don’t worry about silly myths concerning saturated fats or cholesterol. Eggs are a healthy breakfast! For lunch, a salad, with a healthy helping of chicken will suffice.

More You Can Do to Support Muscle Strength as You Age

Taking care of your stem cells is another important way you can support your muscles as you age. Stem cells are our body’s repairmen, and in our muscles, they not only repair damage but also help with muscle growth. While the common belief is that muscle decline as we age is due to a loss of our motor neurons (nerve cells that carry muscle mobility signals), a recent study finding suggests muscle decline is primarily due to the loss of our muscle stem cells.

Exercising or staying active also helps repair muscles and slow aging. Exercise appears to increase stem cell numbers in muscles as well as modify genes, which live in the chromosomes inside our cells, in essence turning back our genetic clock and making our muscle structure similar to a younger person’s.

Eliminating pharmaceuticals, such as statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs), that are toxic to muscles may help you stay more active and maintain muscle strength as you age. Myopathy, or muscle disease, can be a side effect of statins in select patients. This means it acts like a medication allergy, in effect subtly poisoning the muscle.

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The Final Key to Keeping Muscle Mass as You Age?

Of all of the things I’ve written about, perhaps the most important thing you can do as you age is to stay active! If you really want to learn how to be that guy or gal that’s 70 or 80 and still kicking it, then read our ProActive book:

The upshot? If you want to keep those muscles as you age, there’s a lot you can do. The biggest is keep your body active by fixing small issues while they’re small. However, if it’s really as simple as throwing in some eggs or chicken, then sign me up!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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