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High Protein Foods for the Elderly

Baby Boomers are leading the way in healthy aging with a keen eye on diet, particularly protein intake. And Seniorly's got the information you need - and the tips you want - for helping older adults get enough protein.

By Gabrielle Seunagal Updated on Feb 28, 2024

As we age, embracing a nutritious diet becomes more than a choice—it's a cornerstone of maintaining our health and vitality. The truth is, the food we enjoy every day is the fuel that powers our bodies, influencing everything from our body weight to muscle strength and the health of our internal organs.

After all, our bodies can only run on the food we regularly feed ourselves. The health, or lack thereof, of meals will subsequently determine each person's body weight, muscle mass, the well-being of their internal organs, and much more.

Elderly adults, in particular, need to reap the nutritional benefits of high protein intake. From lean meat and cottage cheese to vitamin D and more, there are many options to choose from. Meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans alike can enjoy high protein foods. In the absence of a healthy diet, elderly people often run into serious problems like chronic diseases, loss of muscle mass, and less than optimal muscle function.

How much protein do older adults really need?

Ok, so this is where things get tricky. The current RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) standard is well below what aging experts generally recommend. Most adults aged 65 and older should be aiming for about half a gram of protein per body weight daily - and that holds true for both men and women. Medical research suggests that older adults can increase muscle responsiveness by increasing protein intake, which is great news.

Protein consumption and the elderly: common challenges

Ok, so we all know that protein is important. After all, they're not called "the building blocks of life" for nothing. But as we age, there are common changes that we all experience that make it more challenging for us to consume the protein we need in order to keep muscle, provide energy, and generally keep our systems in balance:

  • Limited mobility or physical disability: Physical limitations can make it difficult for older adults to shop for groceries or prepare meals, especially those containing high-quality protein sources that may require more effort to prepare, such as fresh meats or legumes.
  • Social isolation: Older adults who live alone or are socially isolated may lack the motivation to prepare nutritious, protein-rich meals for themselves. Eating alone can reduce the pleasure associated with meals, leading to simpler or less nutritious eating habits.
  • Changes in taste and smell: Aging can lead to changes in the senses of taste and smell, which can affect appetite and preferences for certain foods, including protein sources. This can lead to a preference for sweeter or more bland foods that might be lower in protein.
  • Medication side effects: Certain medications can affect appetite, taste, and the body's ability to absorb nutrients, including protein. These side effects can make it more difficult for older adults to consume or metabolize protein efficiently.
  • Dental issues: Dental health problems, such as missing teeth, gum disease, or ill-fitting dentures, can make chewing difficult, particularly when it comes to protein-rich foods like meat, nuts, and some legumes. This discomfort can discourage older adults from eating these important sources of protein.
  • Financial constraints: If you've taken a trip to the grocery store lately, you've no doubt notivied that protein sources, especially high-quality ones like lean meats, fish, and dairy products, can be more expensive than other types of food. Fixed incomes or tighter budgets in retirement can make it challenging for older adults to afford these nutritious options regularly.

A note about metabolic changes and aging

If we want to get scientific about it, there are also lots of metabolic changes that happen as we age. Some of them impact how we consume protein, but others actually impact how our bodies process protein as we age:

  • Reduced stomach acid production: Older adults often experience a decrease in the production of stomach acid, crucial for the initial digestion of proteins. Lower levels of stomach acid can lead to reduced efficiency in breaking down protein into its constituent amino acids, making it more difficult for the body to absorb and utilize these essential nutrients.
  • Changes in kidney function: With age, there can be a decline in kidney function, which affects the body's ability to process and eliminate waste products from protein metabolism. This necessitates a careful balance of protein intake to avoid overloading the kidneys, potentially making it harder to consume enough protein without risking kidney health.
  • Altered muscle protein synthesis: Aging is associated with changes in how muscle protein is synthesized and repaired. Older adults often experience a blunted response to protein intake, meaning their bodies are less efficient at converting dietary protein into muscle protein. This phenomenon, known as anabolic resistance, requires older adults to consume more protein to achieve the same muscle-building response as younger individuals.
  • Increased need for certain amino acids: Some research suggests that older adults may have an increased need for specific amino acids, such as leucine, which plays a critical role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. The altered requirement can make it more challenging to meet nutritional needs through diet alone, especially if dietary choices are limited.

Tips & tricks for helping older adults get more protein


Protein is particularly important for maintaining muscle mass, supporting immune function, and keeping the body strong. However, we know it can be a bit tricky ensuring they get enough of it. Whether it's due to changing tastes, dietary restrictions, or the simple challenge of preparing meals, getting that all-important protein into their diet might need a little creativity and lots of love. Here are some heartwarming and practical tips to help the special seniors in our lives boost their protein intake, ensuring they continue to live vibrantly and healthily.

  • Snack on protein: Encourage little bites of joy like Greek yogurt, cheese slices, a handful of nuts, or a boiled egg. These snacks are not only tasty but pack a protein punch, perfect for nibbling throughout the day.
  • Blend in some protein powders: If chewing is a bit of a challenge, how about a smoothie or a shake with added protein powder? It’s a delicious way to sneak in that extra protein without much fuss.
  • Pick soft and easy proteins: For those who find chewing tough, softer options like cottage cheese, tofu, or ground meats can be real game-changers. They’re gentle on the mouth but great for strength.
  • Eat together, eat better: Sharing a meal isn’t just about food; it’s about company and joy. Eating with others can make meals more enjoyable and encourage a hearty appetite for those nutritious, protein-rich foods.
  • Cheers to protein drinks: Don't overlook the convenience and benefit of protein drinks. Whether it's a ready-made shake or a homemade concoction, these drinks can be a fantastic way to increase protein intake, especially for those on-the-go or looking for a quick and easy nutritional boost. They come in various flavors, so there’s always a tasty option to satisfy cravings while fueling the body with essential protein.

6 ways to increase protein intake

While many foods we all know and love contain some degree of protein, others are known for being especially protein rich. These are the sources that elderly adults should eat on a regular basis. Dairy products, meats, and nuts each help elderly people meet their protein needs while maintaining a healthy body composition.

  • Chicken: With 38 grams of protein in just one cup, chicken is not only rich in protein and essential amino acids but also versatile and beneficial for muscle and bone health. For easier digestion, older adults might prefer softer preparations like poached or braised chicken. These methods make it tender and easier to eat, ensuring you get the nutrients without the strain.
  • Lean beef: Offering 22 grams of protein per three ounces, lean beef is a powerhouse of essential amino acids, iron, and zinc, crucial for oxygen transport and immune support. For those concerned about digestion, opting for ground lean beef in dishes like meatloaf or slow-cooked stews can make it more digestible and enjoyable.
  • Salmon: With 17 grams of protein in a three-ounce serving, salmon not only supports muscle mass but may also protect against chronic diseases. For older adults, baking or steaming salmon can ensure it's soft and moist, making it easier on the digestive system while still offering its rich nutritional benefits, including antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eggs: A single egg provides six to seven grams of protein, making it a simple yet effective way to boost protein intake. Scrambled eggs or a simple hard boiled egg (which can be made in advance at the start of the week) can be softer and more manageable for older adults to eat, while still delivering essential nutrients for muscle health, blood pressure regulation, and eye health.
  • Peanut butter: Two tablespoons pack 8 grams of protein, making peanut butter a convenient plant-based protein source. Spreading it on soft bread or incorporating it into smoothies can make it an easy-to-consume option for older adults, helping to boost the immune system and lower the risk of chronic diseases.
  • Lentils: For those who prefer plant-based proteins, a cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein. Preparing lentils in soups or purees can make them easier to digest while still offering benefits for cholesterol and blood pressure management. Pairing lentils with whole grains can also complement their amino acid profile, making it a wholesome option for elderly nutrition.

Vegetarian diets: don't forget about those essential amino acids!

More often than not, many people believe that eating meat sources like chicken breast is the most effective way of consuming necessary amounts of protein. This belief can fuel the misconception that people who don't eat meat are going to have a harder time taking in the recommended amounts of protein.

For vegetarians, paying close attention to amino acid intake is particularly crucial, as amino acids are the building blocks of protein, essential for bodily functions such as muscle repair, enzyme production, and hormone regulation. Since plant-based diets might not always provide all nine essential amino acids found in animal products, it's important to focus on combining different plant sources to achieve a complete protein profile. Foods like quinoa, buckwheat, and soy are excellent as they contain all essential amino acids, but it's also beneficial to mix a variety of other plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds throughout the day. This strategy ensures that vegetarians can meet their nutritional needs, support muscle health, and maintain overall well-being without relying on animal products.

Both eggs and (most forms of) peanut butter can be eaten by vegetarians. The same also goes for greek yogurt, with just seven ounces containing 20 grams of protein. Vegan protein bars, along with plant based and whey protein powders are great options for vegetarians as well.

Even nuts rank among vegetarian-safe high protein options. Pistachios, for instance, are known for having each essential amino acid that helps with body weight and healthy calorie intake. Older people who would like to consume more protein can also safely do so by including almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts in their diets. The key again is to learn how to combine vegetarian foods to deliver a complete protein, which includes all essential amino acids.

Benefits of high protein foods for older people

Whether through plant sources or animal sources, elderly adults reap immense benefits from consistently eating enough protein. Healthy weight management, amino acids, and a balanced diet are just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Supports muscle health: Adequate protein helps maintain muscle mass, which naturally declines with age, keeping older adults stronger and more agile.
  • Aids in recovery: Protein is crucial for the healing process, helping repair tissues after medical procedures or injuries, thus facilitating a quicker recovery.
  • Boosts immune system: Proteins are vital components of antibodies and immune system cells, helping older adults fight off infections and illnesses more effectively.
  • Improves bone health: Alongside calcium and other minerals, protein plays a key role in maintaining bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
  • Enhances nutrient absorption: Protein helps in the transport and absorption of various nutrients, ensuring that the body can effectively utilize the vitamins and minerals consumed through diet.

What happens when older people miss out on protein?

If good health weren't motivation enough, there are some serious implications for older adults who don't get enough protein. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that with age comes various changes to bodily composition. Many of these changes often include reductions in organ tissue, skeletal muscles, blood components, and even the body's ability to fight off infections - all of which are health issues that can significantly impact their quality of life:

  • Muscle weakness or loss: Reduced protein can lead to sarcopenia, characterized by a decrease in muscle mass, muscle growth, and muscle strength - all affecting mobility and independence.
  • Skin, hair, and nail problems: Protein is essential for the repair and growth of these tissues. Low intake may result in thinning hair, brittle nails, and skin issues.
  • Increased susceptibility to infections: Since proteins are vital for immune function, a deficiency might lead to a higher incidence of infections and a slower recovery process.
  • Delayed wound healing: Protein's role in cell regeneration means that insufficient levels can slow down the healing process for cuts, bruises, or surgeries.
  • Edema: Low protein levels can disrupt the balance of fluids in the body, leading to swelling, especially in the legs, feet, and hands.

How to help your loved ones eat protein rich foods

  • Start the conversation: Approach the topic gently, emphasizing the benefits of increased protein intake, including its role in muscle maintenance, weight management, and the health of internal organs.
  • Highlight the benefits: Explain the importance of protein, healthy fats, and essential amino acids in their diet, focusing on how these nutrients contribute to overall health and well-being.
  • Share meal ideas: Offer suggestions for high-protein lunch options or snacks that are both nutritious and appealing, to inspire a change in their dietary habits.
  • Express your care: Make it clear that your advice stems from a place of concern and love, reassuring them that your primary goal is their health and happiness.
  • Acknowledge the adjustment: Recognize that adapting to a higher protein diet may take some time, especially if they're not accustomed to consuming much protein.
  • Encourage patience and persistence: Stress the idea that with a bit of adjustment, eating a protein-rich diet can become a natural part of their daily routine, enhancing their enjoyment of meals while boosting their health.

Eating more protein has never been easier

In today's world, where information and resources are more accessible than ever, there's no better time to focus on improving our dietary habits, especially when it comes to protein intake for older adults. The wealth of knowledge available at our fingertips and the variety of high-quality protein products on the market make it easier than ever to adopt a protein-rich diet tailored to the unique needs of the elderly.

From protein supplements and fortified foods to natural, whole-food sources, the options are vast and varied, ensuring that there's something suitable for every preference and dietary requirement. As we continue to navigate the abundance of health information and innovative products, let's take advantage of these opportunities to support the older adults in our lives, helping them to lead stronger, healthier, and more vibrant lives through better nutrition.

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Works consulted:

  • Jamie I. Baum. "Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?." Jun 8, 2016.
  • Caryl Nowson. "Protein Requirements and Recommendations for Older People: A Review." Aug 7, 2015.
  • Campbell. "Nutritional Interventions: Dietary Protein Needs and Influences on Skeletal Muscle of Older Adults." Jun 16, 2023.
  • Alice Callahan. "How Your Protein Needs Change as You Age." Nov 30, 2023.
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    written by:

    Gabrielle Seunegal writes for Seniorly on the topic of aging and support systems for the elderly.  She is a a regular contributor to the USA Herald among other news platforms. Her writing is celebrated for its insightful analysis and deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the aging population. 

    Her commitment to shedding light on important issues facing the elderly, combined with her engaging storytelling, has made her a respected voice in the field. Gabrielle's work not only informs but also advocates for better support and understanding of aging communities. When not writing, her travels add a unique dimension to her insights, making her pieces not just informative but also reflective of a broader understanding of human experiences across different cultures.

    View other articles written by Gabrielle

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