High Protein Foods for the Elderly: Why They NEED More!

High protein foods for the elderly are an essential part of their diets to prevent muscle loss, frequent falls, fractures, and maintain optimal health.

Understanding how essential protein is in the diet of older adults is the key to promoting a long healthy life!

Read on to find essential protein food sources, how to choose the best ones, and exactly how much older adults need.

What is Protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient that our bodies require to maintain essential functions. It is made up of amino acids that play critical roles in maintaining our body’s health.

Protein can be found in both animal and non-animal sources. Having animal sources of protein may be the better choice for those who are not vegetarian or vegan.

Animal proteins contain Vitamin B12, Heme-Iron (better absorbed), higher amino acids, higher digestibility, and better ability to build muscle.

Protein in our bodies is found in our hair, skin, nails, muscles, and bones.

What is the Importance of Protein?

Protein is essential in your balanced diet at any age. But is of particular importance in the older people as there are numerous health benefits.

Maintaining a higher protein content in the diet helps to maintain muscle mass, maintain physical ability, maintain independence, in turn maintain quality of life, and much more.

Protein helps to provide the body with essential nutrients that can also help with wound healing or pressure injuries that may occur.

Having enough protein in the diet is also essential to prevent our body from breaking down the muscle mass that we have. Not providing enough protein in the diet promotes a catabolic effect on the muscles.

Meaning that if there isn’t enough protein eaten daily, our muscles start to breakdown.

meat in a deli.

Why Do Seniors Need More?

Older adults are at an increased risk of losing muscle mass, low bone density, weight loss, falls, fractures, pressure injuries, wounds, and more. A high protein diet can help prevent many of these issues.

Another issue that is associated with aging and a low protein diet is Sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is progressive loss of muscle mass and strength associated with aging. Sarcopenia is associated with is associated with decreased physical ability, poor quality of life and early death.

Thankfully there are ways to prevent sarcopenia before it sets in. A key to prevention is a combination of physical activity to maintain muscle mass, as well as nutrition.

The best way to prevent sarcopenia is having a healthy diet filled with protein-rich foods

How Much Protein Do Seniors Need?

Younger adults have a recommendation of 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight.

Over the age of 65 years old, the recommendation is 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight.

For a 60 kilogram woman, this would work out to approximately 60 -72 grams of protein per day to maintain essential functions.

If an individual has three meals and 2 snacks per day, each meal could have 20 grams of protein, and each snack could have 5-10 grams of protein as well.

Spreading the protein intake at each meal and snack can help elderly individuals not feel so overwhelmed by large portion sizes.

older woman eating.

What Happens When a Senior Lacks Protein?

Inadequate protein in an older person can result in:

Increased muscle loss
Impaired wound healing
Poor skin integrity
Inability to fight infections

With poor consequences like those it is no wonder that high protein oral nutritional supplements are commonly promoted for elderly individuals.

For optimal health it’s important that elderly people shoot for at minimum the 1.0 grams per kilogram body weight goal.

Best High-Protein Foods for the Elderly

High protein foods can come from both animal and plant-based proteins. Trying to find the best option for health can be difficult, but I’ve developed this list to help you out.

Animal Protein

Animal proteins as discussed are a source of all the essential amino acids that our body needs to build muscle and are an excellent source of protein. This includes poultry, red meat, and pork products.

It is also the source of heme-iron which helps to maintain healthy blood. Heme-iron can only be found in animal sources such as chicken, beef, pork and fish.

Getting a sufficient amount of heme-iron sources from meat, poultry, and fish, can help maintain energy levels because it helps to maintain good oxygen levels in our blood.

Heme-iron found in animal sources is also better absorbed than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron sources are from plant-based protein sources.

Some will recommend only lean meats in the elderly due to its lower fat and calorie content. But in the elderly the goal is to get the most amount of calories and protein, in the smallest amounts.

Elderly individuals typically have a smaller appetite, so we want to provide meals that don’t require large quantities to get the nutrients they need.

Animal based proteins can also provide essential nutrients such as:

Vitamin B12
Vitamin B6
Iron
Zinc
Phosphorous
Vitamin A

These nutrients can be a great combination to help maintain overall health, and improve skin integrity to prevent pressure injuries in the elderly.

meat on a platter.

Seafood

Seafood can be another great source heme-iron proteins.

It is also a great source of:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Vitamin D
Riboflavin
Calcium
Phosphorous
Iron
Zinc

Having good sources of fish in the elderly diet can promote good heart health, brain function, reduce inflammation and help with memory.

It can also feel like a lighter protein due to its typical low calorie content. For those who don’t want a ‘heavy’ feeling meal, fish may be a better option.

Seafood on ice.

Dairy Products

I recommend that the type of dairy product offered is given based on preference.

Some health ‘experts’ may recommend having a low-fat dairy products, but similar to lean proteins, the goal should be meeting overall protein and calorie needs. Not weight loss in the elderly

If an individual needs increased calories because they are finding it hard to meet their needs, full fat dairy products can go a long way.

Dairy products are a great source of:

Calcium
Vitamin D
Protein
Selenium
Vitamin A
Potassium

If someone is lactose intolerant, there are some great products on the market that includes dairy milk with no lactose.

I recommend sticking with real dairy products, not dairy alternatives such as almond milk, soy milk, and others. Real dairy products provide better absorption of the nutrients in it.

Some high protein dairy products can include:

Milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheese.

milk in a cup.

Eggs

Almost everyone loves a good egg dish for breakfast. Or lunch, or supper. Just about anytime is a good time for eggs.

Eggs are incredibly versatile making them an easy opt-in to increase protein in the diet. They can be included in baking, breakfast scrambles, lunch sandwiches, and are the basic ingredient in quiche.

Eggs provide:

Vitamin B2
Vitamin D
Selenium
Iodine
Vitamin A
Folate

Eggs are filled with heart healthy nutrients, and can be a part of a healthy daily diet.

eggs

Beans, Lentils & More!

Beans, lentils and other non-animal protein sources can be a fantastic high protein food source for the elderly.

These protein sources are inexpensive, versatile, and provide high amounts of fibre. Many elderly individuals struggle with constipation, providing beans daily can help to prevent this!

Beans also contain:

Iron
Magnesium
Potassium

beans.

High Protein Meal Ideas

Spreading protein intake throughout the day can seem like a daunting task, so let me give you some high protein food ideas for the elderly to help make building meals easier!

High Protein Breakfast Ideas

Breakfast can be a great way to start the day with some high protein sources such as:

Eggs
Oats
Milk
Cream in coffee
Peanut Butter
Yogurt
Sausages
Breakfast wraps
Adding nuts or seeds on top of foods

Breakfast can be a combination of many different sources of protein, but you should aim to get a minimum of 20 grams of protein (depending on your body size).

High Protein Lunch Ideas

Some elderly individuals prefer to have a lighter lunch, especially if the meals are particularly close together. Sandwiches in my history have always been a huge hit among this population.

I recommend keeping lunches fairly simple, it’s not the time for meat and potatoes type meals.

Here are some ‘light’ lunch ideas for elderly:

Tuna sandwich
Egg salad sandwich
Cottage cheese with fruit
Quinoa salad
Quiche
Salmon salad wrap
Soups featuring a meat source
Grilled cheese sandwich
Cottage cheese patties

Lunch may not be the heaviest meal of the day, but you can still up the protein by having it in a few different sources.

For example you could have an egg salad sandwich, a side of cheese slices, and a glass of milk. In that meal alone you have 3 separate protein sources.

Getting enough protein is about meeting protein needs throughout the day, not just in 1 or 2 meals.

High Protein Dinner Ideas

Protein is typically always the star of a dinner menu making it quite easy to put together.

Having a combination of a high protein source, carbohydrates, and healthy fats can help to maintain a well-balanced a nutritious diet.

Here are some high protein foods for the elderly for dinner time:

Roasted chicken
Pork loin
Shepherds Pie
Fish sticks

FAQ’s

What are the Best High Protein Foods For the Elderly?

Having a mixture of all the sources of protein listed above can provide the essential nutrients that an individual needs.

I recommend having at least one animal source of protein daily, and incorporate other non-animal based proteins for all the other meals and snacks.

How Can I Add More Protein-Rich Foods?

Ensuring that protein is offered at every meal and snack can help to meet daily protein needs.

If you need to add more, sprinkling peanut butter on top of oatmeal, having an extra egg at lunch, having slightly larger protein sized portions at meals, can all help.

How much Protein Should a 70 Year Old Eat?

A 70 year old individual who has no protein restrictions on their diet (kidney disease) should aim for 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily.

What About Protein Supplements?

Protein supplements such as oral nutritional supplement drinks and protein powders can be another way to achieve protein goals.

They can be a part of maintaining a healthy weight, muscle strength, and prevent health issues associated with not meeting protein needs.

If you want to know my recommendations for protein supplements, find out here.

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Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full time online entrepreneur with two nutrition focused websites.

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