By Carol Harrison, RD

Most of us have heard of osteoporosis, but ask people what sarcopenia is and many folks have no idea. Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of muscle mass and strength as we age, and while we can’t stop it, we can slow it down. Here’s what you can share with your fitness participants about why that matters and what they can do about it.

Sarcopenia starts as early as our forties.

There is always individual variability, but from about 40 to 70 years of age we can lose a staggering one quarter of our muscle, and muscle weakness is a well-established risk factor for falls. Avoiding falls and maintaining good muscle function is important for everyday living and can mean more quality years as we age. And don’t we all have an unending bucket list of things to do, many of which require some physical stamina? That’s what this is all about!

Good to know: By 2030—in less than two decades—seniors will number over 9.5 million and make up 23 percent of Canadians. The possibility of increased falls and the stress on our health care system as a result makes sarcopenia a priority health concern.

Resistance exercise is king to offset decline in muscle mass.

According to CSEP, muscle-strengthening activities are those that increase skeletal muscle strength, power, endurance and mass, such as:

  • Lifting weights
  • Working with resistance bands
  • Exercises that use body weight for resistance (e.g., push-ups or sit-ups)
  • Heavy gardening (e.g., digging or shoveling)

Good to know: Only 16% of adults are active enough to reap the health benefits  associated with engaging in regular physical activity. With lower rates of physical activity, the best resistance exercise program is likely the one folks will stick with over the long run.

Protein quality and quantity matters too.

Not all protein foods are created equal. In general, animal sources of protein provide a higher quality and quantity of protein, all for a modest number of calories compared to plant sources (soy is an exception).

For example, animal protein such as beef, dairy, and fish are considered a high quality or complete protein because they provide all nine indispensable (essential) amino acids in proportions that closely match our needs. Nuts, beans, and other plant proteins tend to have a limited amount of one or more of the indispensable amino acids, which is why we must combine a grain at the same meal (rice and beans for example).

The calorie cost of protein is worth considering as well. A 100 gram serving of cooked lean beef provides 35 grams of protein and 245 calories. To get the same amount protein, you’d need to eat 10 tablespoons of peanut butter, 845 calories. Meats are concentrated quality protein sources.

Good to know: Meat, fish, legumes, dairy, nuts and seeds all come with a unique package of beneficial nutrients, so ideally you want to include as much variety throughout the week as possible. Try combining protein in the same meal:

  • Eggs with refried beans
  • Bean and beef burritos
  • Tofu and shrimp stir fry
  • Hemp seeds and yogurt

Aim to eat protein-rich foods at every meal.

It’s becoming widely accepted that the protein recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein/kg body weight per day needs updating, with good evidence showing:

  • Across the lifespan, especially as we age, protein needs are higher than recommended;
  • For optimal muscle synthesis, protein requirements should be set per meal, not per day.

While more precise protein needs can be determined by age, weight, and training schedule a good general guide is to aim for 25 to 30g per meal. Here are some meal ideas to achieve those amounts of protein:

  • Breakfast: ½ cup Greek yogurt (10 g) + ½ cup blueberries (1 g) + ¼ cup walnuts (7 g)  + 1 egg (6 g)
  • Lunch (a leftover beef stir-fry): 75 g grilled beef strips (26 g) + 1 cup stir fry veggies (3 g) + ½ cup cooked brown rice (3 g)
  • Dinner: ½ cup lentil soup (6 g) + 75 g baked salmon (20g) + 1 cup oven-roasted mixed veggies (3g)

For personalized advice, it’s a good idea to recommend clients see a registered dietitian for help.

Good to know: On average, Canadians do not eat too much protein. Currently, Canadians eat about 17% of calories from protein. That puts us at the lower end of the recommended range of 10 to 35% of our calories from protein.

Bottom line: Slowing down the natural loss of muscle that happens as we age starts with taking action as early as our forties. A combination of resistance exercise and a sound diet that includes protein-rich foods can contribute to quality years as we age.

About Carol Harrison

Carol Harrison is a registered dietitian who loves her daily workouts! She has a food nutrition communications company in Toronto. Follow Carol on Twitter and Instagram.