Getting Enough Protein

Protein is a nutrient that is vital to our health. It’s not only required for our muscles, it’s also required for almost every bodily function we have including digestion, and cardiovascular and nervous systems to name just a few. Lack of adequate protein increases frailty, impairs the immune function, and recovery from injury takes longer.

Seniors tend to have smaller appetites and eat less; combine that with reduced absorption of nutrients and that equates to the risk that seniors may not be meeting their protein requirements. Naturally meat, poultry, and fish are good sources of protein for those who choose to eat meat.

The trick, however, is trying to increase protein intake when traditional sources of protein are refused. One woman I knew would only eat mashed potatoes and canned peas for lunch and dinner. Another gentleman developed an aversion to all meats and cheeses. A third would only eat a slice or two of deli ham (not exactly a high quality source of protein) at lunch and no protein at breakfast or dinner. A vegetarian coworker (now retired) picked at her lunch and barely ate anything except for salad at a recent reunion.

Foods for seniors should also be nutrient-dense, not just full of empty calories. Here are some suggestions on increasing protein intake. Of course some foods should be avoided according to allergies, dietary preferences, and chewing/swallowing ability.

  • Nuts & seeds, preferably unsalted. Top oatmeal, yoghurt, and cereal with chopped nuts and seeds.
  • Choose Greek yoghurt over regular yoghurt: it has more protein.
  • Spread nut butter on fruit slices.
  • Mix skim milk powder into already prepared yoghurt, puddings, smoothies, mashed potatoes, creamy soups, oatmeal, mac & cheese, and egg salad. Nobody will be able to taste that it’s in the food.
  • Make fortified milk: increase the protein in regular milk by adding skim milk powder to it. Use this fortified milk in cereal, for baking, or drink a glass of it accompanied with a slice of bread with peanut butter.
  • Cottage cheese is relatively high in protein.
  • Go vegetarian with edamame, tofu, tempeh.
  • Use whole grain bread or bread with seeds.
  • Stir cooked lentils and beans (kidney, chickpea, etc) into soups and stews, or puree them and use them as a thickener.
  • Simmer some prepared beans (white kidney beans, chickpeas, etc) with a little chicken stock for about 10 minutes then puree the stock & beans. Add flavourings such as herbs & garlic to taste and serve as a side dish, or use as a spread on crackers or veggie sticks.
  • Use quinoa instead of pasta or white rice.
  • Scramble some eggs with grated cheese and fortified milk. Note: seniors and those with compromised immune systems should never consume raw eggs.
  • Use fortified milk when making smoothies and milkshakes.

Be wary of protein bars, shakes, powders & supplements. Some have added sugar, and not everyone can tolerate the richness of the shakes and some may even interact with certain medications. Some have higher levels of potassium and sodium or may contain glutin. They may not be safe for anyone with a renal disorder. Always seek medical advice first to see what, if any, supplementation is suitable.

So how much protein is required?  Studies suggest that 1.0 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight is an adequate intake, and some experts say that as much as 25 to 30 grams daily can be safely consumed. Always consult with a medical professional.

Make sure water intake is kept up, as you don’t want to stress the kidneys for those who already have some kidney function impairment.

And speaking from personal experience, these are easy ways to increase protein intake for cancer patients as well.



Protein powder (Washington University)

Introduction to Protein (Eat Right Ontario)

Nutrient Protein (World’s Healthiest Foods)

Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Food and Nutrition for Older Adults: Promoting Health and Wellness (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)


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