To reduce age-related muscle loss, older people need to eat proteins fairly evenly throughout the day, says a study.
The results published in the journal Frontiers in Exercise and Sports Nutrition suggest that eating more protein at breakfast or lunchtime could help older people maintain muscle mass with advancing age.
This is because older people tend to eat less protein at breakfast and lunchtime.
The body's mechanisms for producing new muscle require regular stimulation to function efficiently - this stimulation happens when we eat protein.
The mechanisms are less efficient in older people, so they need to eat more protein to get the same response as younger people.
But just eating more protein is not enough, though. Older people also need to spread that intake evenly across all their meals to ensure they maximise the benefits of protein for muscle mass.
"We know that older people show a blunted response to muscle building when consuming a certain amount of protein," said first author on the study Benoit Smeuninx from the University of Birmingham in Britain.
"Therefore, older individuals need to eat more protein to get the same muscle building response as younger and middle-aged people," Smeuninx said.
The researchers studied the dietary intake of young, middle-aged and old individuals with a particular focus on the amount, pattern and source of protein consumed.
Their results showed that while the majority of individuals across all three groups met or exceeded current national guidelines (RDA) for protein intake, the protein intake and distribution across daily meals and snacks were very varied.
The study involved 120 participants divided into three age groups. In the first, participants had an average age of 23; in the second an average age of 51; and in the third an average age of 77.
All participants were asked to complete a food diary over a three-day period, weighing out every single food item consumed.
Researchers looked for patterns in the dietary behaviour of participants. In particular, they evaluated the protein intake across the different age groups and found 18 different patterns of protein intake throughout the day, showing a wide variety of eating habits.
Most noticeably, the team found that old people, compared to young and middle-aged individuals, were more likely to eat a lower-quality protein source at lunchtime.
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