I’ve had a request to do a post on nutrition for muscle building/maintenance, which I think is a great topic. It’s not just a topic for competitive athletes though! With a 3-5% loss of muscle mass per decade after the age of 30 and the incredibly important roles of protein in the body, eating right to maintain muscle mass is important for pretty much everyone.
Not only does greater muscle mass result in a greater resting metabolic rate (the amount of energy you burn at rest), but it also allows you to maintain function in daily activities as you age.
So, how much protein do you need? It varies from person to person based on your age, body weight, and any medical conditions you might have. For normal, healthy adults, the minimum amount of protein required is 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight. Some scales allow you to convert to kilograms or you can just divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. So, for a 150 lb (68.2 kg) person, that would be roughtly 54-68 grams of protein per day.
Regular exercise training increases your protein needs a bit. For endurance training, needs go up to about 1.2-1.6 grams per kilogram and 1.4-1.7 for strength training. These needs change depending on the volume/intensity of training and different periods of the training cycle (which is why it’s helpful to work with a dietitian), but these are some general guidelines. Active older adults have similar needs, requiring anywhere from about 1.0-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Over the age of 70, your general protein needs are a bit higher at around 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Doing some resistance training (after checking with your doctor first of course) is also an important part of building and maintaining muscle. At least 2 days per week of resistance/muscle strengthening exercise focusing on all muscle groups is recommended for adults. For older adults, the addition of exercises focused on balance is recommended.
Back to nutrition! If you think about the process of building muscle, it makes sense that this requires energy or “building blocks”….a.k.a. food! As I’ve mentioned before, just eating mass amounts of protein will not do you any good in this regard. You also won’t see much progress if you aren’t consuming enough calories.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel source and if your body doesn’t have enough, it will be forced to use protein for energy (a very “costly” process) instead of using that protein for muscle building. That’s why we recommend to eat a combination of protein and carbohydrate post-exercise and a small carbohydrate-containing snack before exercise if you work out first thing in the morning or a long time after your last meal.
Don’t forget that the most beneficial way to consume protein is evenly spread throughout the day. More is not always better and consuming large amounts of protein at any one time does not result in greater benefits.
Above all, remember that everyone’s individual needs vary. The above are just general guidelines. Health conditions, age, and activity level all affect the amount of protein (and nutrients in general) that you need. A registered dietitian is the only nutrition professional with the specialized education and training to take all of these things into account and provide medical nutrition therapy based on your specific medical conditions.