You are probably familiar with the old saying, “age is just a number.” That may be true in many instances. However, there are key differences between young and senior lifters and bodybuilders to consider when planning your protein intake to support muscle growth. The best protein powder for men and women over 50 looking to build muscle is not necessarily the same as the best for young lifters.
This article explains why protein is essential if you want optimal results from your efforts in the gym and what to look for in protein supplements.
What is Protein and Why Is It Important for Building Muscle?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that provide your body with energy and nutrients to remain healthy and function properly, the other two being carbohydrates and fat.
Carbohydrates and fats provide you with the energy your muscles need to lift weights and perform in the gym. Protein allows your muscles to respond to that effort by growing bigger and stronger.
The protein you eat is made up of 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential. Those are the ones crucial to building muscle and the ones you need to get adequate amounts of to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. A protein source that contain plentiful amounts of all nine essential amino acids is called a complete protein.
Amino acids are the building blocks of almost everything in the human body. When you eat protein-rich foods, like eggs, chicken, or beans, your body breaks the protein down into amino acids and then uses them to build and repair your muscles, organs, skin cells, etc.
Both US and European authorities recommend a daily protein intake of 0.8 to 0.83 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.1 2 That amount of protein is enough to stay healthy and maintain your muscle mass if you’re untrained. Perfect for a sedentary lifestyle.
However, some people, including those who engage in strength training and older adults, benefit from more protein.
- Strength athletes and bodybuilders need 1.6–2.2 g/kg of body weight per day to optimize gains in muscle mass.3 4
- Older people require 1–1.3 g/kg of body weight per day to “reduce age-related muscle mass loss.”5
You’re probably not satisfied with just reducing muscle loss, though. You want to gain muscle, right? If you eat too little protein, your body will have a hard time repairing and building muscle tissue. If you need 30 % more protein than the Recommended Dietary Allowances just to keep your lean body mass, it makes sense that you need at least 1.6–2.2 g/kg of protein per day as a bodybuilder or someone looking to maximize muscle gains after 50 for optimal results.
Protein can also aid with weight loss if that’s your goal—weight loss in the form of fat, that is. Protein is filling, allowing you to cut down on calories without going hungry and help you maintain muscle mass and lose body fat simultaneously.
Your Muscles After 50
As you get older, you start to lose muscle. The average person loses 0.5% to 1.5% lean body mass every year between 50 and 80.6 The loss of muscle mass starts slowly but ramps up as you get older. It adds up over the years, meaning the average 80-year-old has a lot less muscle mass than at 50.
The age-related loss of muscle mass does not seem to be caused by changes in muscle protein synthesis and muscle breakdown as you get older.7 Instead, the likely culprits are:
- An increasingly sedentary lifestyle. If you don’t challenge your muscles regularly, they start to go away. Use it or lose it. We get more comfortable in our old age, and aches and pains start a vicious cycle where exercise and physical activity become less attractive.
- Inflammation. Aging is associated with chronic, low-level inflammation, which causes and accelerates muscle loss.8 9
- Hormones. As you age, your muscle-building hormones decline. Estrogen levels fall after menopause, and testosterone levels in men steadily go down year by year. Both hormones are important regulators of muscle mass.
However, you don’t have to stand by and accept the age-related decline in muscle mass! You can reverse the process, keep age at bay, and increase muscle strength and mass.
You only need to do two things. Hit the weights like you mean it regularly and make sure you ramp up your protein intake.
Strength training boosts your muscle protein synthesis and allows you to keep your precious muscle mass or even increase it, regardless of age. But you need to provide your body with enough protein to support your efforts.
What is “Anabolic Resistance”?
As you get older, you don’t build as much muscle when you eat protein as when you were young. After eating a protein-rich meal, the muscle protein synthesis of a young person increases by about 50%. When an older man or woman eats the same meal, they don’t get nearly the same response.10 11 12
This phenomenon is called anabolic resistance: a reduced response to eating protein and lifting weights that happens with aging.
Again, strength training and protein to the rescue. You can overcome the reduced response to protein simply by eating more of it, and frequent high-intensity weight lifting increases muscle mass after 50, just like before. It might take a bit more effort and be a little more challenging, but challenges are meant to be overcome.
Eating a Protein-Rich Diet: Food vs. Supplements
A healthy diet is more than just protein, carbs, and fat. It also provides you with numerous nutrients your body needs to function optimally and build muscle. Even though getting adequate protein is crucial for muscle gain, it’s not the end-all-be-all of your diet.
Most of your daily protein intake should come from protein-rich foods. Whole foods provide you with much more than just concentrated dietary protein. Protein supplements like protein shakes are just that: supplements. As such, they are convenient, relatively inexpensive, and an easy way to boost your overall protein intake. We’re not talking good or bad here.
Unlike fat and carbs, your body can’t store protein for future needs. Try to spread your daily protein intake out over the day into multiple feedings instead of loading up on a single giant meal. The good old breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal plan works like a charm. Adding a protein shake or two between meals and after your workout on training days is a recipe for success and makes it easy to get enough protein.
Examples of high-quality protein sources loosely ranked for muscle-building potential:
- Milk and dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
- White meat (chicken, turkey)
- Fish and seafood
- Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
- Beans, lentils
- Nuts, almonds, seeds
Load your plate with quality protein foods, then add protein powders as needed for convenience to reach your target protein intake.
Different Types of Protein Powders
Protein powders come in many different forms, either plant-based or animal-based.
Plant-Based Protein Powders
Most plant proteins contain too little of one or more essential amino acids to cover your body’s needs by themselves. Plant-based proteins contain smaller amounts of the essential amino acids necessary for building muscle. However, there is little evidence that using an animal-based protein powder is superior for muscle growth in the long run compared to a plant-based one.14
Plant-based protein powders include:
- Soy protein
- Hemp protein
- Rice protein
- Pea protein
- Nut or seed protein
- Vegan-friendly protein blends that include several different plant-based protein sources
Animal-Based Protein Powders
Animal-based protein powders, with some exceptions, contain abundant amounts of all the amino acids your body needs to build muscle. Some options are:
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Milk protein (a combination of whey and casein protein)
- Beef protein
- Egg protein, most often egg white protein
The exception to “all animal-based proteins have enough of all amino acids” is collagen protein. Not surprisingly, collagen protein is inferior to whey protein for muscle-building in both younger and older adults.15 16
Out of all these, whey protein, casein protein, and soy protein are the most extensively studied for muscle-building purposes.
Whey protein is one of the two major dairy proteins, the other being casein protein. It is the most common protein powder supplement available and is supported by the greatest amount of scientific research. Whey protein can be found in three common forms: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. They all come from regular cow’s milk but differ in protein content. Whey protein is rapidly absorbed and stimulates muscle protein synthesis more powerfully than other protein sources. However, that stimulation doesn’t last very long.
- Whey protein concentrate is the least processed whey protein powder you can get. It is also the least expensive option, but you also get more lactose and fat.
- Whey isolate is a purer form of protein powder, having gone through more thorough filtering processes to remove much of the fat and lactose. Isolate contains at least 90 percent protein.17
- The third common type of whey protein powder is hydrolysate. Whey hydrolysate is whey that has been treated with enzymes to break it down before you drink it, which means you absorb it very rapidly. The treatment that breaks down the protein liberates the amino acids, some of which taste pretty awful. That means it’s harder to disguise the sour taste of amino acids with artificial sweeteners and flavoring agents, making hydrolysates the worst option if you’re looking for a tasty shake.
There is no evidence that whey protein isolate is superior to concentrate for building lean muscle mass.18 However, isolate is the better option if you have issues with lactose intolerance.
According to some research, whey protein maximizes lean body mass gain compared to other protein supplements.19
Casein is a slow-digesting protein that provides you with all the essential amino acids your muscles need. Because you absorb it over a long time, it can keep muscle protein synthesis elevated for an extended period of time without food, like during an overnight fast. Like whey, casein is a milk protein, making up 80% of the protein content in regular cow’s milk.
The two most common types of casein protein powder are micellar casein and calcium caseinate.
- Micellar casein is the least processed type of casein. The casein in milk is contained in so-called micelles, particles that coagulate and form a gel-like substance. The digestion of micellar casein takes a long time, making it a protein commonly used by fitness enthusiasts as an evening protein before an overnight fast.
- Calcium caseinate is manufactured from skim milk by acid preparation and spray-drying. Caseinate is slower than whey protein, but likely not nearly as slow as micellar casein.20
According to research, whey and casein are great for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, perhaps more so than other protein sources.21
Soy protein comes from, you guessed it, the soybean. It is one of few plant-based proteins with enough of all the amino acids you need for building muscle at an optimal rate. Using soy protein powder stimulates muscle protein significantly. It’s not as potent as whey but more than casein.
Soy protein concentrate contains between 65 and 90% protein, while isolate provides a minimum of 90% protein.
Some studies find soy protein less effective than milk proteins like whey for muscle-building purposes. Overall, though, soy protein supplementation appears to be as effective for muscle and strength gains as animal-based proteins.22
You might have heard that soy protein messes with your estrogen and testosterone levels. However, there is little evidence to support such claims.23
There is not enough research done on most of the other protein powders to determine how they compare to, for example, whey protein. Usually, only one or two studies have compared the two to date, and that’s not enough, especially since they are often underpowered with few participants.
Pea protein is a plant-based option if you avoid dairy products and other animal-based proteins. The research on pea protein for muscle-building purposes is limited, but two studies found that pea protein and whey protein produce similar gains in strength and muscle mass in men and women up to 50 years of age.24 25 Unfortunately, there are no pea protein studies with older participants.
Rice protein is another vegan-friendly option. As with pea protein, there are no studies on an older population, but two studies found no difference between rice and whey protein in young lifters.26 27
Potato protein appears to be a complete protein, just as effective as milk protein for increasing muscle protein synthesis.28 There are no long-term studies on the benefits of potato protein or in an older population specifically, but it looks promising.
Egg protein was the gold standard for protein quality for many decades, and there is little doubt that eggs are fantastic for your muscles. Egg protein powder is not that popular, not because it doesn’t work, but because it doesn’t dissolve easily and doesn’t taste all that great. Twenty grams of post-workout egg white protein maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis after a gym session in young men.29 Because of the anabolic resistance mentioned above, using 30–40 grams of egg protein powder instead of 20 would be a good idea for older lifters.30
Benefits of Protein Powders
While whole foods should make up the majority of your protein intake, protein powders offer several unique benefits.
- Cost: most protein powders are, gram for gram, less expensive than the same amount of protein from regular protein-rich foods. If you only look at the price tag per bag or tub, protein supplements might seem costly, but keep in mind that protein powders are a very concentrated source of protein. Unlike protein-rich foods, which typically provide around 20 grams of protein per 100 grams, protein powders often contain 70–80 grams of protein per 100 grams, sometimes even more.
- Convenience: sometimes, you just don’t have the time, energy, or opportunity to eat a regular meal. A well-balanced and protein-rich meal might be the optimal choice, but sometimes it’s just not practical. If you’re on the go, you can always drink a protein shake in just a few seconds. Also, after a high-intensity workout, you might not feel like eating right away, making a shake both convenient and palatable.
- Filling and tasty: protein is filling compared to carbs. Drinking a delicious protein shake can be a low-calorie alternative to reaching for something unhealthy and high in sugar when you’re hungry and craving something sweet.
- Variety: protein powder supplements come in many different flavors, from classics like chocolate and vanilla to more exotic flavors if you’re looking for something new and exciting. Unlike the protein supplements of the last century, many powders taste great today and make for a sweet and delicious protein boost without the sugar of other snacks.
- They make it easy to get enough protein: getting enough protein for building muscle can be a challenge, especially on a low-calorie or vegan diet. Protein powders are a very concentrated source of protein, so just adding one or two per day to your regular diet makes it much easier to reach your target intake.
The Best Time to Use Protein Powder
Most people probably use protein powder as a post-workout supplement to help build muscle. That’s an excellent time to drink a protein shake as your muscles need protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and kickstart the muscle-building process.31 32 If you prefer, drinking a shake before the workout offers similar benefits.33
Eating a balanced and protein-rich mixed meal after a training session is likely as effective. Still, a protein shake is more convenient and palatable after a grueling workout for many lifters and bodybuilders.34 A protein shake also optimizes post-workout recovery, which can be vital if you train hard and often.35
You’re not limited to using protein powder after a workout, though. It’s just food in powdered form. You can use it as a snack between meals, to boost the protein content of a meal, or before bedtime to keep your muscle protein synthesis rates up during the night.
There is no “best” time to use a protein powder, as you can use it as a high-quality protein source whenever it’s convenient.
Which Protein Powder is Best?
The bad news is that there is no one “best” protein powder that covers all the bases. Depending on when and why you’re using it, a different protein powder might be best for the occasion. The good news is that you have a wide variety of protein powders to choose from, and there are few bad choices.
Let’s look at the best protein powder for men and women over 50.
The Best Post-Workout Protein Powder for Men and Women Over 50
After a workout, your muscles are primed and ready for protein. Without protein, your body can’t start building new muscle mass.
Using a slow protein like casein or a fast protein like whey post-workout works equally well for young lifters. After a training session, your muscles are more sensitive to amino acids and respond by boosting protein synthesis regardless.36 37
However, as you get older, your muscles don’t respond as well to slowly digested proteins after exercise. Research shows that whey is superior to casein for boosting muscle protein synthesis after resistance training in older men.38
While research on older lifters is limited, a 2001 study found that older men who drank a protein shake immediately after training gained muscle mass, while those waiting two hours did not.41 The participants were 74 years old, not 50, but the results still suggest that getting protein to your muscles quickly after a workout becomes more important as you get older. There are certainly no benefits in waiting. And because you absorb whey protein rapidly, it could be more beneficial than other proteins with a slower uptake.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you need more protein post-workout to boost muscle protein synthesis maximally with aging. For young people, 20 grams of whey protein is enough. However, doubling that amount to 40 grams is beneficial for older lifters.42 43
The best post-workout protein powder for men and women over 50 is whey protein. Although it is less effective than whey protein for older adults, soy protein is the most well-researched plant-based alternative.44
The Best Protein Powder Before Bed for Men and Women Over 50
Many bodybuilders drink a casein protein shake just before bed to give their muscles a steady supply of amino acids during the night. Research supports this practice in older adults, as 40 grams of pre-sleep casein protein boosts overnight muscle protein synthesis.45 Twenty grams of casein protein is not enough to keep muscle protein synthesis rates elevated throughout the night.
Given that whey protein is rapidly absorbed, a slow-acting protein like casein or soy is likely the better option at this time, when you’re about to go without eating for many hours.
Research shows that young men gain more muscle and strength when they drink a casein shake before bed compared to a placebo.46 Unfortunately, the only long-term study with older participants used whey protein, not casein.47 The results did not show any benefits from a pre-bed protein shake, but then again, whey protein is probably too fast in this case, being absorbed over only a couple of hours.
An important thing to note is that all studies compare pre-sleep protein to a non-protein placebo. The group drinking the protein shake before bed ends up with a higher total protein intake. That means that it’s not possible to tell if any benefits of pre-sleep protein come from the timing or simply from a greater overall protein intake. You would think someone would design a study comparing pre-sleep protein with a similar amount of protein only added at another time during the day, but that hasn’t happened so far.
Whether nighttime protein is superior to simply eating more protein at some other time remains to be seen. But adding a protein shake before going to bed is a convenient way to boost your daily protein intake and boost your overnight muscle protein synthesis.48 In this case, whey protein is likely absorbed too fast, and casein or soy protein might be better options.
The best pre-sleep protein powder for men and women over 50 is casein protein, or soy protein if you don’t or can’t use dairy products.
The Overall Best Protein Powder for Men and Women Over 50
Almost all the proteins in the foods you eat are digested slowly over time. Your muscles have access to a trickle of amino acids instead of a flood. The one exception is probably meat, but only if you chew it thoroughly.49 Research shows that a “fast protein,” meaning one you absorb rapidly, is more beneficial for building muscle in older adults.50 51
The only really fast protein is whey protein. That’s part of what makes whey the overall best protein powder for men and women over 50. You already get slow protein from your regular meals, so boosting muscle protein synthesis with fast whey protein is likely a good idea.
If you don’t consume any animal-based foods and whey protein is out of the question, you don’t have access to any fast proteins. In that case, just use the protein powder type of your choice, be it soy, pea, or any other vegan-friendly protein. Studies on an older population are scarce, but they produce similar gains as whey protein in young people, as noted earlier in the article.
Because you absorb these proteins less rapidly, they might not be optimal for muscle gain in older athletes and bodybuilders, but they aren’t bad choices. The total amount of protein you eat is likely far more critical for your gains than the type of protein you choose and when you eat it.
As long as you eat a high-protein diet, your choice of protein powder is mainly a matter of preference. Whey protein offers the most benefits for older adults, but you likely won’t notice any dramatic differences as long as you eat plenty of protein overall.
The overall best protein powder for men and women over 50 is whey protein. The best plant-based alternative, if you avoid dairy, is soy protein. Other options are likely fine, and you’d probably be hard-pressed to notice any difference. However, whey protein is supported by scientific research as an excellent protein choice for older adults to a much higher degree.
How Much Protein Powder Should You Use?
Whether you choose to use protein powder once, twice, or more times per day is up to you. Maybe only on training days or when you’re on the go if you get enough to cover your nutritional needs without the extra protein. Or every day if you prefer the convenience of a shake.
Whey edges out the other options as the protein powder for men and women over 50 when it comes to the amount of protein powder you need to stimulate muscle protein synthesis fully. It takes 2.7–3 grams of the essential amino acid leucine per protein serving to max out muscle protein synthesis. You’d need 47 grams of casein protein, 48 grams of pea protein, or a whopping 55 grams of soy protein to get that amount. Or you could simply use 32 grams of whey protein.52
Older adults require more protein per serving compared to young adults to overcome the age-related resistance to feeding. Aiming for 40 grams of quality protein per meal is a great way to ensure that your muscles always have enough building material.
- The overall best protein powder for men and women over 50 is whey protein. It stimulates muscle protein synthesis a bit better than other proteins, which might help you build more muscle over time.
- Casein protein is absorbed over a more extended time and is suitable when you’re not going to eat anything for some time, like before bed. Whether pre-sleep casein protein is beneficial because of the timing or simply a convenient way to increase your overall protein intake is unknown. There are no downsides to a casein protein shake before hitting the bed, though.
- If you avoid dairy products, soy is the most common alternative and also the one supported by the most research. Alternative plant-based protein powders, like pea, rice, and hemp protein, likely work fine but are only backed by a few small-scale studies.
- Your overall total intake is by far the most crucial factor when it comes to protein. Details like timing and type are far less important, as long as you get enough protein over the day as a whole. Choosing a protein powder is more about convenience and preference. Whey protein slightly edges out the other options as the best protein powder for men and women over 50, though.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our complete guide to building muscle after 50. Protein might be important for your results, but pounding the protein won’t help you pack on the muscle if your training isn’t on point. Strength training is also essential for healthy and functional aging. Not to mention that it keeps your body looking young.
You can find many training programs to help you reach your fitness goals in the StrengthLog app, and you can download it for free using the links below. It is also a fantastic tool for logging your workouts and making sure you’re on the right track for success.
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