As we age, we steadily lose muscle mass. It's a fact that many falls and bone fractures result not from weak bones, but from insufficient muscle to support ourselves as we go about our lives.

It's easy to preserve muscle or reverse age-related muscle loss, which doctors call sarcopenia. You can do this through diet, exercise and supplements or any combination of these. The more you do, the more you will ensure that you lead an active, independent and productive life long into your 60s...70s...80s...and beyond.

The Power Of Protein

The word protein comes from the Greek proteins, which essentially means first and foremost. This hints at just how important protein is for life and health. In addition to forming our muscles, protein constitutes much of the tissue of the internal organs. And bone is a matrix of proteins and minerals. Proteins also are the building blocks of hormones, immune cells, neurotransmitters and other biochemicals.

For too many years now, doctors and dietitians have warned patients about the dangers of eating too much protein. That view now is changing, but too slowly in my opinion. It turns out that many people, particularly seniors, do not consume enough high-quality protein. High-quality protein foods contain all the essential amino acids, the compounds that are the building blocks of protein. Poultry is one example. Fish is another, and it has an added benefit since many cold water types, such as salmon and sardines, are high in the healthful type of omega-3 fatty acids. Eggs, in moderation, are another option, especially those enriched with omega-3s.

Best: Eat a variety of proteins, including fish, poultry and legumes, such as kidney beans and lentils. A legume might be low in one particular amino acid, but chances are you'll eat another food rich in that amino acid that will make up for it.

Over the course of one year, one of my older patients, a 90-year-old man, lost a great deal of weight and strength. (If a person is overweight, losing weight is healthy. In his case, it wasn't) He was able to gain weight-increasing muscle, not fat-and enhance his strength simply by consuming more protein.

Important: Protein is both essential and safe. However, people with kidney disease should consume relatively small amounts of protein daily because high amounts can stress the kidneys. If you have reduced kidney function or any type of kidney disease, speak to your physician first before changing the amount of protein you consume.

Eat More Protein Every Day

There are lots of ways to get more protein into your diet. Here are the protein amounts for some common foods. Do the math-you'll see that it's not hard to boost intake.

  • Chicken (white meat), 35 oz = 31 g protein
  • Turkey, 3 oz = 28 g protein
  • Beef round roast (preferably grass fed), 3 oz = 25 g protein
  • Tuna, 3 oz = 24 g protein
  • Salmon, Chinook, 3 oz = 21 g protein
  • Pumpkin seeds, 1/4 cup = 19 g protein
  • Pork roast, 3 oz = 21 g protein
  • Black beans (boiled), 1 cup = 15 g protein
  • Chickpeas (boiled), 1 cup = 15 g protein
  • Shrimp, 6 large = 85 g protein
  • Skim milk, 1 cup = 8 g protein
  • Walnuts, 44 cup = 4 g protein
  • Brown rice (cooked), 1 cup = 4 g protein
  • Peanut butter, 1 tbsp = 4g protein
  • Broccoli, 1 cup = 3 g protein

The Role Of Vegetables

Most plant foods have less protein than fish, poultry, beef and other meats, but they are good protein sources because they are low in fat and high in fiber.

What you might not know: Vegetables and fruits help build muscle, but not because of their protein content. Plant foods are rich in potassium and bicarbonate, which result in a more alkaline pH (pH is the body's alkaline-to-acid ratio). Most other foods make your body more acidic, and acidosis triggers muscle wasting. A recent Tufts University study found that higher intake of foods rich in potassium, such as fruits and vegetables, can help preserve muscle mass in older men and women.

The Benefits Of Exercise

I can't overstate the benefits of regular exercise, particularly resistance activities (weight lifting) for preserving and increasing muscle. As I have explained, muscle is mostly made of protein. Exercise stimulates the conversion of dietary protein to muscle. The more exercise you do, the better. Going for a daily brisk walk is a good way to start. Consider advancing to hand weights, larger weights, cycling or swimming. Alternate activities to avoid boredom. Resistance exercise, such as weight lifting, will reverse sarcopenia even if you consume relatively little protein, according to an article in Journal of Physiology, because the physical activity stimulates the conversion of protein to muscle.

Take Vitamin D Daily

Vitamin D is needed to make muscle. It ensures that calcium, which is essential for transporting proteins to muscle tissue, is absorbed. If you don't already do so, take 1,000 international units (10) of vitamin D daily.

Getting Protein From Supplements

As I have mentioned, protein consists of compounds called amino acids, so think of taking amino acid supplements as a way of getting more protein.

Some exciting recent research has focused on using amino acid supplements to increase muscle mass and strength while reducing body fat and fatigue. These supplements won't give you a bodybuilder's physique, but they can help reverse age-related muscle loss.

Beware: Not all amino acid supplements are alike. Many of the protein powder supplements that come in huge containers in health food stores or pharmacies have poor-quality proteins (such as soy) and lots of sugar. These are not worth using.

I recommend these protein supplements…

  • Multi amino acids. These supplements, available at most health food stores, provide between eight and 11 different amino acids. Recent studies have shown impressive benefits in seniors after they took these supplements. One of the studies, reported in The American Journal of Cardiology, found that people who took daily amino acid supplements had significant increases in muscle after six months-and experienced even more of an increase after 16 months, reaching the normal levels found in peers without sarcopenia. I often recommend multi amino acids because they come closest to being a complete protein (one that contains all of the amino acids). One good example is Country Life's Max Amino Caps (800-645-5768, Follow instructions on the label.

Alternatives: Use supplements that contain individual amino acids. Beta-alanine, l-ornithine (which seems to help women especially) and l-leucine, known to help convert protein to muscle, are what I recommend. For each, follow instructions on the label.

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