Why protein is important for midlife women – and how to get enough

Is protein a midlife must or has it been over-hyped? Nutritionist Stephanie Moore sets the record straight.

Protein for midlife women – made simple

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is protein?

Protein is one of three macronutrients – alongside fat and carbohydrate – that make up the bulk of food we need to be eating daily in relatively large quantities (hence macro) to meet our physical needs.

Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients we need to absorb from our food, but in tiny amounts.

Protein is made up of tiny building blocks called amino acids. Different food sources contain different amounts of these amino acids. When we eat them, our stomach acid and enzymes break the protein down into individual amino acids. These get absorbed into the bloodstream and are then reassembled to create proteins in the many forms needed throughout the body and brain.

There are 20 amino acids. These combine in myriad ways, making different lengths of chains, from just three to many thousands of molecules in length, to perform the different jobs protein is needed for.

Of the 20 amino acids, nine are called essential amino acids (EAAs). These nine EAAs can be combined to make up the other 12 amino acids, as needed. We must get these nine EAAs from our diet. Foods that contain all of the EAAs are known as complete proteins. The presence and balance of the EAAs is what determines which protein sources are of the highest, most ‘complete’, absorbable and ‘ready-to-use’ quality.

Why do we need it?

We cannot live without protein and fat. Interestingly, we can survive without carbohydrates (though it is not recommended) because the body can make its own glucose and we only need tiny amounts to survive.

Our body can’t make its own protein, however. If we’re not eating enough, the body is forced to ‘eat up’ internal sources of protein, including our muscle – not ideal!

For most people, eating adequate fats and carbs is pretty effortless. All veg, fruits and grains contain carbs, with rice, potatoes, bread and pasta delivering high concentrations. A knob of butter, a glug of olive oil, a handful of nuts or a good chunk of cheese and you’ve had a nice hit of fat.

With protein, despite it being present in most foods, getting sufficient amounts is not so simple for many women.

How does protein support our health

Protein is required for the growth and maintenance of bones, muscle, skin, nails and hair. We also need it for connective tissue and the lining of the digestive tract. Our organs must have a regular supply of the components of protein to repair and thrive. Moreover, protein fuels hundreds of bodily processes, from the production of hormones to the regulation of immune system function. Proteins also make enzymes. Over 500 biochemical reactions depend on enzymes, including digestion, where enzymes break down our food, enabling nutrient absorption.

Proteins also provide the core ingredients for making our brain chemicals – known as neurotransmitters.

We simply cannot make adequate serotonin, our happy and confident brain chemical; melatonin, one of our key sleep chemicals; GABA, our anti-anxiety chemical; nor any of the other 100+ brain chemicals if key proteins are lacking.

Protein also has a positive benefit on metabolism and longevity, due to its unique ability to improve body composition by increasing lean tissue mass. Put simply, protein is an essential part of every aspect of our physical, metabolic, hormonal, digestive, immune, neurological and mental health.

Where do we get protein from?

Some foods are teeming with easy-to-use ‘complete’ protein to readily provide our daily requirement.

This is where animal proteins out-compete plant-based proteins, including soy, as they contain all the essential amino acids in ratios that allow the protein to be easily taken up by the body and put to good use.

If you’re an omnivore, ensuring you have a little meat, fish, eggs or dairy in all your meals is a good general principle to ensure you are meeting needs. If you choose not to eat animal protein, by definition, there will be some EAAs you’re not getting or getting in very small quantities from your diet. This is not only problematic due to the lack of these amino acids but because the downstream production of some of non-essential amino acids can also become compromised. If we have little to no animal protein in our diet, we need to be making a more concerted effort to fill in some amino acid gaps.

Is it more important as we age?

During menopause and the years of post-menopause that follow, slowing loss of bone (osteoporosis) and muscle (sarcopenia) must be top priorities for women. We all want perkier skin and luscious hair, which adequate protein is also critical for. But lack of bone and muscle maintenance is the true enemy of healthy longevity.

Many experts agree that from our mid-30s, bone and muscle protein synthesis (building) slows and protein breakdown increases. In short, we are losing these vital tissues faster than we are rebuilding if we’re not taking extra care to stimulate new protein synthesis. We can achieve this through exercise, especially resistance training/lifting heavy weights, but we critically have to combine this with optimal intake of the EAAs to make the exercise count.

Stressing our muscles through exercise will have minimal benefit if we are not able to restore and build post-training with these critical building blocks.

So how much protein do we really need?

The recommended minimum protein intake for adults is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of body weight. This roughly equates to 50g of protein per day for a 65kg woman. The 0.75g per kilogram of body weight recommendation is the absolute minimum to provide the body with its basic needs. It works on the assumption that the dietary protein is being digested and absorbed properly.

As stress, poor gut health, poor sleep, sitting too much, inflammation, ageing and so many other factors can deter protein synthesis, along with the increased demands from physical exercise, which is, of course, highly desirable, an ideal daily protein intake might be closer to 1.2g per body weight for most women. This means a 65kg woman should be aiming for more like 80g of protein a day as a minimum. For people who train very hard and/or are eating a low-carb diet, even higher levels might be required.

These figures are pretty meaningless to most people. This is not about the weight of your protein-containing food, it’s about the grams of protein within the food – they are not at all the same thing. Knowing your exact intake requires weighing each meal and looking up the amino acid profile of each food.

Most don’t have the time or inclination to do this. This is why I recommend the general protein principles outlined below.

Stephanie’s protein principles for midlife and beyond

Prioritise protein on your plate

Make sure you have at least one source of animal protein or multi sources of plant protein at every meal.

Plan the day

Your first and last meals of the day are the most important for meeting your protein quota. Your muscles are most primed for taking in protein in the morning. They also require it throughout the night to support muscle repair. Aim for at least 30g of high-quality protein at both meals.

Fuel up after a workout

After a workout, aim for at least 30g of protein. Whey isolate protein powder or bone broth powder can be very helpful.

Don’t forget fats

Having healthy fats along with your protein improves its availability. Most animal sources naturally have fat present. Think oily fish, whole eggs and marbled outdoor-reared red meat. You can also add healthy fats such as butter, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds to improve protein digestion.

Slow your eating

Chew well and eat slowly in a non-stressed state. This helps to ensure we’re stimulating adequate stomach acid and the digestive enzymes we require for protein digestion and amino acid synthesis.

Get a helping hand

Find proteins hard on your digestion (e.g. a heavy feeling or acid reflux)? Consider taking some digestive enzymes that contain pepsin, the main protein-digesting enzyme, to help the process. Always take at the start of a protein-rich meal.

Think about your needs

The harder you exercise, and the more you are focused on bone and muscle building, the higher your minimal protein requirement.

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