Building Muscle as You Age: Protein Needs for the Older Lifter

Does the older lifter need more protein to keep building muscle?

Even if you don’t even lift, there are reasons to believe that more protein than the general dietary recommendations might be beneficial for you as you age – both to stay healthy and to maintain your physical capacity.

If you not only lift, but also aim to build as much muscle mass as possible, then recommendations for the general populations rarely pass muster.

The amount of protein you needed for maximum gains in your youth might not be enough anymore. Also, you probably have to consider things like protein timing and spreading your protein intake over the day when you plan your diet.

What does this mean, and what amount of protein are we talking about? That’s what you will find out in this article.

Building Muscle at an Advanced Age

This article is primarily aimed at those of you over the age of 60 or thereabouts wanting to build muscle mass. Those of you who refuse to let age stand in the way of gaining muscle.

Do you engage in strength training mainly for health reasons and to maintain a fit and strong body? That’s awesome! Hitting the weights is one of the best things you can do to fill your golden years with health and greater quality of life. You can make use of the information in this article, but you don’t have to utilize it to reach your goals. Strength training for health and to maintain a fit body does not require any drastic dietary measures. Simply eat a varied, healthy, and protein-rich diet in addition to your regular sessions with the weights, and you’re good to go.

Gaining as much muscle mass as possible is a different animal entirely. You have to put some considered effort into doing so, especially when you have reached a more advanced age. If that’s your goal, this article was written with you in mind. You’re the one who might have to apply theory to practice.

“Anabolic Resistance”

When you get older, your muscles start to resist your efforts to gain size and strength. The amount of protein that was enough for maximal muscle-building effect when you were 30, no longer cuts it. When a young individual eats a protein-rich meal, his or her muscle protein synthesis increases by about 50% above normal resting levels. When an elderly person eats the same meal, that response is quite diminished.1 2

In other words, you don’t respond as well to muscle-building, anabolic, stimuli like when you were young. This applies to both training and feeding. Your reduced muscular response to protein intakes is called protein resistance or amino acid resistance. The fact that a training session doesn’t create the anabolic effect it once did is called anabolic resistance. Old muscle is resistant to the signalling mechanisms started by anabolic activities like lifting weights and eating.

What Does “Elderly” or “Old” Mean?

There is no specific point in your life when these effects suddenly occur, but somewhere around the age of 60, they become apparent in studies. Most likely, it’s a gradual process that takes quite some time before you can notice it. Also, depending on genetics and how you live your life, the time of onset probably differs a lot on an individual basis.

Muscle Protein Turnover: the Basics

Let’s begin with a basic overview of how the processes of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown control your muscle mass, and how you increase said muscle mass by strength training.

Regardless of your age, the balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown determines the size of your muscle mass. Both processes are simultaneous and constant throughout your entire life. You never just build muscle or just lose muscle. Rather, one of the processes dominates at any given moment. This balance is called your muscle protein balance.

Strength training and eating, especially protein, are the two things that have the greatest muscle-building potential.

In the fasted state, your muscle protein balance will always be negative. In other words, you break down more muscle than you build. Following a meal, the balance turns positive. Amino acids from the protein you eat stimulate your muscle protein synthesis. Insulin released in response to your meal decreases your muscle protein breakdown.

Strength training has a very powerful anabolic effect. Even if you train without eating anything beforehand, and continue fasting after the workout, your muscle protein balance improves. This means that a gym session can help you lose less muscle during a period of fasting.

To gain muscle, however, you have to give your muscles what they need. In this case, this means a healthy supply of amino acids.

This is easily accomplished by eating or drinking some kind of protein before or after your workouts. Strength training and protein feedings act synergistically. This means that the combined anabolic effect of the two is greater than the sum of the individual anabolic effects. One plus one equals three, in this case.

A strength training session and a protein-rich meal have a synergistic effect on muscle growth.

If you don’t hit the weights regularly, not much happens to your muscle mass. You don’t lose any, but you don’t gain any either. If you do spend some time in the gym a few times per week, the combined effects of the training and your protein-rich meals lead to more muscle and a stronger body, over time.

Muscle Protein Synthesis and Breakdown When You Get Older

As you age, everything works as described above, but a bit less efficiently. You no longer get as large a muscle-building effect when you eat or exercise. The average person who does not engage in regular strength training loses between 0.5% and 1.5% lean body mass every year between the age of 50 and 80.3

Decades ago, scientists believed that this age-related loss of muscle mass was caused by a decline in normal, resting protein synthesis rates, or by an increase in muscle protein breakdown during aging. This does not seem to be the case. Recent, more sensitive methods of measuring protein synthesis and breakdown, can’t find any differences between young and old individuals.4

One thing of note is that such a difference might exist, even though studies haven’t been able to discern it. This could be because of two main reasons:

  • Systemic inflammation is much more common in the elderly. Chronic inflammatory conditions lead to increased muscle breakdown and a reduced capacity to maintain muscle mass in rats. Aging is associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation in humans, too.5 These, in turn, are associated with several chronic diseases and disorders. Likey, these disorders affect our muscle mass negatively. No really large-scale studies have investigated the differences between the young and the old. Perhaps the elderly subjects in the available small-scale studies were in good shape without these inflammatory conditions?
  • As we age, the more sedentary we become. Physical activity is the most powerful muscle-building activity there is. Remove that from the equation, and you very well might cause your basal muscle protein synthesis rate to decline as well, leading to a loss of muscle mass. The available research often excludes sedentary individuals.

In general, however, aging in and of itself does not seem to cause a decline in resting muscle protein synthesis.

Instead, your response to muscle-building activities, like your workouts and your meals, is not what it once was.

How Much Protein Do Older Lifters Need?

According to current EFSA recommendations, you need 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day as an adult, regardless of your age.6 The US recommended daily intake is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.7

Recent research indicates that the elderly need more than that for health and physical function, somewhere between 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day, especially if they exercise and are physically active in general.8

However, what you need for general health is not necessarily what you need to gain as much muscle as possible. It rarely is.

When you are young, you need around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day for optimal gains.9 Nothing bad happens if you eat more than that, but don’t expect to gain any more muscle mass from doing so either. Adding even more protein to such an already large amount does not give you an advantage when it comes to building muscle.

If you are elderly, that amount might not be enough to promote maximal gains. Unfortunately, the available research is lacking in many areas. It might be a good idea to shoot for a whopping 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day if your goal is to build as much muscle mass as possible.

Your total protein intake isn’t the only thing to consider, though. How you distribute that intake throughout the day is also important.

Protein Per Meal

Young muscle is very responsive even to small amounts of protein. Eating as little as 5 grams of protein increases muscle protein synthesis rates above normal resting levels. When you are young, you reach a plateau at around 20 grams in one meal, where eating more protein does not build any more muscle.

Further reading: How Much Protein from a Single Meal Can Your Body Use to Build Muscle Mass?

Several studies show that 20 grams of high-quality protein is enough to max your muscle protein synthesis out, both at rest and after a workout when you are young.10 11 Be it egg protein or a whey protein shake, 20 grams is enough. If you eat or drink more than that in one sitting, you get a very limited, if any, additional anabolic response.

Once past a certain age, however, consuming that amount of protein doesn’t do much. Your older muscles don’t respond by increasing muscle protein synthesis like those of a young person. You need more than 20 grams.

In another study, both young and elderly men and women ate either 30 grams or 90 grams of protein in the form of lean meat. Despite providing three times as much protein and calories, 340 grams of meat did not build any more muscle than 113 grams in the hours following the meal.12 This suggests that even though 20 grams of protein is too little for the elderly who don’t engage in strength training, 30 grams seem to do the job.

You, however, do engage in strength training. You want to build muscle. For you, even 30 grams might not always be enough. Several studies investigate the effects of ingesting 20 or 40 grams of protein after a workout. According to the results, you will benefit from the larger amount.

Muscle Protein Synthesis Following a Workout

One of these studies gave 37 elderly men with an average age of 71 years either 0 grams, 10 grams, 20 grams, or 40 grams of whey protein after a leg workout using only one leg. Twenty grams were enough to increase muscle protein synthesis in the exercised leg but not by as much as 40 grams. According to earlier studies, 20 grams of protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis maximally following this kind of workout in young subjects. This result shows that you need more protein to get the same effect when you are older.13

A recent study lends support to this conclusion. Twenty-three men close to 70 years of age performed a leg training session composed of Smith machine squats, leg presses, and leg extensions. After the workout, they drank a shake with either 20 or 40 grams of whey protein. The larger amount started signalling mechanisms and gene expressions that regulate muscle protein synthesis during the hours after the training sessions. Twenty grams of protein, however, did not.14

Strength

You can gain more than muscle mass by increasing the amount of protein you eat per meal as a senior. If your main training goal is strength, eating, or drinking 40 grams of protein instead of 20 grams after a workout will probably benefit you.

Elderly men, around 70 years of age, performed a strength training session 3 times per week for 10 weeks.15 In addition to their usual diet, they added a post-workout shake providing either 20 or 40 grams of whey protein.

Compared to the 20-gram group, those who drank 40 grams of whey protein after their workouts improved their strength in the chest press, shoulder press, and leg extension by 19%, 21%, and 16%, respectively. Both groups ate similar amounts of protein before the study began, so the difference in strength gains can be attributed to the protein supplement.

Perhaps surprisingly, neither of the groups gained any muscle mass. There are several possible reasons why this didn’t happen:

  • The study only lasted 10 weeks. Normally, you begin to see some gains in muscle mass after 6–8 weeks of strength training in studies. However, maybe 10 weeks wasn’t enough for 70-year old men to gain any appreciable muscle mass.
  • The participants did not eat a whole lot of protein, to begin with. Their regular diet only provided 58–59 grams of protein per day. Because they weighed 92 kilograms on average, that’s far from the amount of protein needed for serious gains. Not even providing an extra 40 grams in the form of a whey protein supplement brought them close to the 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight we mentioned earlier.

Had the study lasted longer, and had the researchers made sure the participants had a high baseline protein intake, it might have resulted in more muscle mass as well as strength.

Regardless, this study suggests that you should aim for 40 grams of protein after your workouts if your goal is to increase your strength.

Why Does Muscle Become Resistant To Protein During Aging?

Science hasn’t figured out the cause of this decline in the sensitivity of the muscles to anabolic stimuli with 100% certainty. However, the leading theory points to the so-called “leucine threshold” as the main culprit.16Leucine is one of the essential amino acids. Your body can’t produce essential amino acids on its own, so you have to provide them through your diet. Leucine is also the amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis.17

When you are young, your muscles are very sensitive to amino acids and react to even small amounts of leucine in the bloodstream. Even if you eat enough protein to provide just a single gram of leucine, that is enough to trigger muscle protein synthesis. If you eat enough for 3 grams of leucine, you stimulate your muscle protein synthesis maximally. However, if you eat even more protein in a single meal, you don’t build any more muscle by doing so. That’s your leucine threshold.

As you age, your amino acid sensitivity slowly but surely goes down. Suddenly, you need 2 grams of leucine to trigger muscle protein synthesis at all. That’s about the amount you get from 20 grams of whey protein. Let’s say your leucine threshold is now 4 grams instead of 3 grams. That explains why you now need 40 grams of protein to get the maximum anabolic response from a meal.

Protein Distribution

Does spreading your protein intake out over the day make any difference in how much muscle you gain? Possibly.

Current recommendations for young people engaging in strength training state that up to 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and meal are a good amount to shoot for. Spread meals of that size out over the day, separated by 3–4 hours, and you’re good to go. You can still build muscle with any other kind of protein distribution, but that’s considered optimal.18

Are those recommendations suitable for elderly individuals as well? Probably, as long as you get 30, preferably 40 grams of protein per meal. That way, you maximize muscle protein synthesis several times per day.

One study showed that protein distribution doesn’t make a difference.19 Eating a small amount of protein for breakfast and dinner, then bingeing on protein come dinner was just as effective as eating an equal amount of protein at each meal. However, that study didn’t look at muscle protein balance specifically. It looked at whole-body net protein balance, meaning the balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown in the entire body. This includes things like your liver, your gut, your skin, and so on.

That’s all well and good, but if you work out hard and want to build muscle, you are probably mainly interested in how well your protein intake helps you on that front. In that case, you probably benefit from spreading your protein intake out in equally large meals throughout the day. If your total intake is as high as we recommend in this article, you have plenty for every other organ and tissues as well.

Fast and Slow Proteins

As an elderly athlete, you probably benefit from a protein you absorb rapidly, a so-called fast protein. In young people, slow proteins, like casein, improve protein balance more. In the elderly, it’s the other way around.20

When you are older, you need both rapid and fairly sizable amounts of amino acids to flood your bloodstream after a workout to maximize muscle protein synthesis, not just any kind of protein. Youngsters, with their fancy intact amino acid sensitivity, get away with any kind of high-quality protein, fast or slow, as long as it provides enough leucine.

Unfortunately, you won’t find rapidly absorbed protein in any relevant amounts in most regular foods. Here’s where supplements like whey protein enter the picture. Regular cow’s milk does contain whey protein, but not very much of it. Casein makes up 80% of the protein content in milk, with whey providing a mere 20%. That would mean liters of milk if you want any significant amount of whey protein. 

Another alternative is lean meat, as long as you chew it enough. If you grind it down enough before you swallow it, meat provides you with fast protein that stimulates protein synthesis. If you don’t chew it thoroughly, it doesn’t.21 Only lean red meat has been studied, but most likely it applies to poultry and other white meat as well.

Soy protein isolate is not as effective, despite being a fast protein. The amino acids from soy protein isolate are incorporated to a greater extent into gut and organ protein rather than muscle protein in the elderly.22

If you don’t have access to fast protein or don’t want to use one of the foods or supplements providing fast protein, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll still be able to get results from your training. The amount of protein is more important. However, rapidly absorbed protein can probably offer you some advantages for gaining muscle mass.

Is It Important To Eat or Drink Protein Immediately After a Workout?

If you are young: no. Your muscles are extra sensitive to the amino acids in the food you eat for a full 24 hours post-workout. You gain as much new muscle protein from a protein-rich meal for at least 3 hours after your workout as you would by chugging a protein shake right after the last set.23

In the elderly, it does seem like it could be more important and maybe make a difference.

Elderly men, between the age of 73 and 75, performed a strength training session 3 times per week during a 12-week long study.24 After the workouts, they all drank a protein shake. Half the subjects drank it immediately after the training session, while the others waited 2 hours. Twelve weeks later, there was a significant difference in muscle hypertrophy between the groups. Those who drank the protein right after the workout had gained more muscle.

It is important to note that the amount of protein in the shake was quite small. It was far from what we now know is needed for a robust anabolic response following a workout, providing only 10 grams of protein. Perhaps both groups would have gained the same amount of muscle if they had received 30 to 40 grams of protein instead, regardless of timing? 

In any case, we can’t discard the possibility that protein timing after a workout is important when you are older. You might very well benefit from eating or drinking some kind of protein close to your workouts. Don’t wait hours before doing so, be it a regular protein-rich meal or a protein shake.

Protein Quality

When you plan your protein intake, the total amount is not the only thing you need to consider. Protein quality is also an issue.

To stimulate muscle protein synthesis, to build muscle, you only need the essential amino acids. Well, you need the non-essential as well, but your body can make those on it’s own, so you only have to provide the essential ones through your diet. You can’t make the essential amino acids. Protein sources from the animal kingdom generally provide you with more essential amino acids than plant-based sources per gram of protein. This means that animal protein has more powerful muscle-building properties, gram for gram.25 A protein that gives you all essential amino acids in sufficient amounts is called a high-quality protein, or a complete protein. 

You can get enough of the amino acids you need to build muscle simply by eating more plant protein or by combining different vegetable protein sources. The problem with that approach is that plant-based protein sources often give you more than protein. You get as much or more carbohydrates at the same time. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but it also increases the number of calories of the meal substantially. To get enough essential amino acids to correspond to 30 or 40 grams of high-quality protein, you’d have to eat quite hefty meals regularly, thus increasing your calorie intake, maybe more than you want or need.

If you eat, say, 150 grams of broiled chicken breast, you get around 40 grams of high-quality protein and all the amino acids you need to build muscle. At the same time, you only get a little more than 200 calories. To get that amount of protein with equal muscle-building properties from boiled lentils, you’d have to eat more than half a kilogram of the legumes. That also means more than 70 grams of carbs and 500 calories. Besides, you probably want more varied meals than that.

Most likely, you can make a plant-based diet work for you, even if you’re going for gains in muscle mass at a more advanced age. However, it will probably be quite a bit harder. At least if you don’t want a calorie intake high enough to make you gain fat at the same rate as muscle, or even faster.

Aging and Your Appetite

Try telling the average 80-year old to start eating 160 grams of protein per day, split into 4 big 40-gram meals. It won’t go over well.

As we age, we often lose appetite. Sometimes by a lot. It can be caused by mechanical issues like difficulties chewing or swallowing. Other causes may include medicines, an impaired sense of taste and smell, or simply age-related hunger- and satiety-signaling. Add the fact that protein is the most filling nutrient, and you find that many elderly have a hard time eating enough food in general, not to mention enough protein to maintain or gain muscle mass.

You probably don’t have this problem, but sometimes it can be tough to eat large amounts of protein anyway. Can you get around that dilemma somehow?

A possible solution might be to add the amino acid leucine to a small protein feeding. By doing so, you make a small amount of protein as anabolic as a larger amount. In young people, adding enough leucine to 6.75 grams of whey protein, for a total of 5 grams leucine, makes the blend as muscle-building as 25 grams of whey protein.26 In the elderly, the amount of amino acids corresponding to 15 grams of whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis, but only after adding 1.1 grams of extra leucine to the mix.27

It is unclear whether or not this method leads to actual gains in muscle mass in the long run. Maybe you need more of all the essential amino acids. Leucine might trigger muscle protein synthesis, but unless you have an abundant supply of all amino acids, not much might happen. More research is needed both more long-term research in general and strength training-related research in particular. Currently, we don’t know enough to say for sure.

Regardless, supplementing protein feedings with leucine to stimulate muscle protein synthesis further is an interesting theory. It might help the elderly obtain enough amino acids for muscle-building purposes without having to resort to force-feeding.

Important Points When You Plan Your Protein Intake

  • You might need more protein to gain muscle mass than someone younger. If your training goals are health and physical performance in general, you don’t have to go above and beyond here. You don’t have to eat more than 1.2 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day to see optimal results. More won’t hurt, but it likely won’t give you any benefits either. Granted, it is more than what is recommended for the average younger adult, but still not an amount you’ll have any trouble reaching. If you shoot for 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day, you get enough for young bodybuilders. That will more than likely give you great potential for gaining muscle. However, if you want to make 100% sure that you get enough, or even more than enough, protein for optimal gains, you can aim for 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and day. Not a whole lot of scientific evidence supports the need for such amounts, but recent overviews speculate on it.
  • Not only do your daily total protein requirements increase, but you also need more protein per meal. In young individuals, 20 grams of a high-quality protein is enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis the hours following the meal. You might need double that amount for a similar anabolic response, especially after a training session. If your target protein intake for the day is 160 grams, you can split that amount into 4 meals, each providing 40 grams of protein. Or you can distribute it over the day in the form of 4 meals of 30 grams of protein, and add a 40-gram protein shake after your workout. Your protein-rich meals should be fairly evenly distributed over your waking hours.
  • Fast protein, the protein you absorb rapidly, stimulates muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree. You won’t find fast proteins in regular food, which means a whey protein supplement might be a good idea. You don’t need protein supplements if you’re training for fitness, but if we are talking about gaining as much muscle as you can, it might be prudent. It is certainly not wrong to make whey your post-exercise protein of choice.
  • Try to eat some type of high-quality, complete protein in every meal. That way, you make sure you get enough of the essential amino acids you need to build muscle every time you eat.
  • Eat or drink some form of protein following your workouts. One study demonstrated that this strategy could be the difference between good and ok-ish results.
  • If and when you eat meat, make sure to chew it properly. This might sound like a silly thing to mention, but studies with elderly subjects show that thoroughly chewed meat stimulates protein synthesis, while unchewed or sloppily chewed meat doesn’t.28 Most likely, this holds for white meat like chicken and turkey as well.

Conclusion

As you age, your muscles start to get less sensitive to protein-rich meals. For the sedentary general population, this can be a health risk, ultimately leading to a loss of muscle mass and mobility. You probably don’t have to worry about that part, since you already engage in the most anabolic activity there is: strength training. You have the edge over your sedentary contemporaries, and will likely keep enough muscle mass to stay functional and healthy throughout your life.

However, if you want to build as much muscle mass as possible at an advanced age, you need to keep some things in mind. Things that probably took care of themselves 30 years ago.

First and foremost, you need more protein every day. Also, you need more protein per meal. You can still promote muscle growth by eating a protein-rich meal, but you need to trick your muscles into responding to the amino acids by increasing your portion size.

Keep these things in mind as you plan your diet. You will increase your chances of gaining muscle, even after the age of retirement. Age is not just a number. However, you don’t have to let it stop you from building muscle and from progressing in the gym.

References

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  15. Research in Sports Medicine, 03 Mar 2020. Post-exercise provision of 40 g of protein during whole-body resistance training further augments strength adaptations in elderly males.
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