Older and Having Trouble Keeping the Pounds Off? Consider a High-Protein Diet

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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low fat vs high protien

Sometime in the past few decades, a civil war broke out between dietitians. On one side is the high protein, low carb camp and on the other is the low-fat adherents. Today's new research is focused on those of us who are over sixty and having trouble keeping pounds off. Should we go with high protein or not? Looks like the high protein crowd may have scored another win here. Let me explain. 

The Civil War

If you're an older dietitian in the zenith of your career and in charge of a big department or on some committee, you were likely taught during a time when the low fat mantra ruled the day. I've blogged before about how all of that came about, but suffice it to say that the low-fat trend seems to have been started more by academic shenanigans then hard data that this was a good idea. If you're a younger dietitian, you were likely trained during a time when the low-fat theory was called into question and when the idea of a high-protein and low carb diet was popular. Hence, we have this divide that still exists today, with each group trying hard to score research that supports its position and us poor consumers being very confused. 

Problems with Obesity

The most obvious signs of obesity might be those on the surface, such as weight gain and clothes no longer fitting. However, major health conditions can also be at play. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases certainly lead the list, but metabolic syndrome (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) often develops as well. In addition, obesity stresses the musculoskeletal system and leads to problems. For example, knee arthritis results when added weight puts more stress on the joint and/or with increases of the hormone leptin (oversecreted with overeating), which has been found to hormonally harm the joint in those with knee arthritis.  While it is true that some of us do have an increased genetic risk for obesity, in most cases a healthy lifestyle with a good exercise routine can keep this in check.

Protein: A Big-Three Power Nutrient

Alongside healthy fats and carbs, protein is one of the big-three essential nutrients that our body must have. Our bones, muscles, and other tissues (even our hair and nails) couldn’t be built without protein. Protein is also a good backup fuel or energy source for the body. Like fat, protein also helps keep you satiated so you don’t overeat. The good news is, you don’t have to spend hours researching to find foods with protein as many foods are protein sources, such as fish, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, and so on. Protein is also found in many vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.), grains (quinoa, oats, etc.), nuts and seeds (almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.), and more.

How much protein should we be consuming each day? The USDA recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 50–60 grams. Chances are, you’re already meeting or even exceeding your RDA of protein. One skinless chicken breast, for example, has around 50 grams of protein, and if you had it alongside a cup of broccoli, that adds about 3 grams. That large egg you had for breakfast clocks you another 6 grams, and the handful of almonds or peanuts you grabbed for your midday snack—that’s another 6 grams or so. Truth be told, you’d probably have to work much harder to decrease your protein intake than to increase it.

Now, a new study suggests that those who are overweight and over 60 can benefit from higher amounts of protein. Let’s review.

High Protein May Result in Higher Function in Seniors

The new study investigated function and strength after increasing protein intake in those who are both heavy and over age 60. Participants were randomized into either a high-protein (90 grams per day), low-calorie diet group or a traditional low-calorie diet group (consuming the RDA 50–60 grams of protein per day). The results? Participants in both groups lost a significant and similar amount of weight, and both had improvements in function. However, the high-protein group had much greater improvements (nearly twice as much) in function and also increases in muscle strength. They experienced, for example, better balance, faster and longer walking, more energy, and so on when measured six months after beginning the high-protein diet.

Whether or not the protein actually builds muscle mass wasn’t within the scope of this study, but further study is underway on this, and there has been conflicting findings in other studies. One thing that seems to stick, however, is that you can eat more high-protein calories and not pack on the pounds you would in a lower protein diet.

Does This Mean We Can All Benefit from Adding More Protein?

While the study provided promising findings, it’s important to note that the benefits achieved involved a very specific population: those who are both overweight and over age 60. Obesity, as mentioned earlier, is associated with many major health conditions as well as functional limitations that worsen with age and more weight gain. Loss of muscle mass and strength is a huge problem in this group as well, as aging and obesity are both associated with muscle wasting. If you are obese and over age 60, this study does suggest that increasing your protein intake may improve function, increase muscle strength, and, as long as the high-protein diet involves healthy whole foods, help you lose weight.

The upshot? For me, high protein and low carb have made sense for the last two decades. However, it's not likely that this back and forth between dietary experts will settle down anytime soon. In the meantime, if you're older, you may want to increase your protein intake and see how that works for you. 

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

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.
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