Where’s the Protein?

Did you ever see those grim images of protein-starved children in faraway places? “Good thing that stuff doesn’t happen here,” you mutter under a sigh of relief.

Newsflash: Protein malnutrition is closer to home than you could imagine, particularly in seniors with dwindling food intake who may not eat enough protein-rich foods.

Protein is made up of amino acids — the building blocks for muscle, enzymes, and cell structure inside the body. But here is the catch: The body does not store extra amino acids and cannot produce several so-called essential amino acids.  So what’s a protein-starved body to do? You must eat enough protein and the right types everyday to keep adequate supplies flowing. If that is not possible then protein supplements can be a valuable option.

Without enough protein intake the body swipes needed building blocks from muscles. Each decade over age 50, in fact, you can lose another 10% of your muscle mass. This weakens the body and could affect strength, balance and daily function. The infection-fighting immune system and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in red blood cells also depend on protein. Clearly you cannot short-change protein intake for your body.

How Much Protein is Enough?

Adults age 19 to 59 years old:  Daily need is about 8 grams protein for each 20 pounds body weight

Older adults over 60: Daily need is about 10 to 13 grams protein for every 20 pounds of body weight.

For example, a 120 pound woman who is 72 years old would need between 10 and 13 grams of protein for each 20 pounds body weight. 20 x 6 = 120 lbs. So she would 60 to 78 grams of protein to meet her daily requirements (6 x 10 = 60, 6 x 13 = 78).

Just choose several items from the chart below and add them up to reach your daily protein requirement – and you are well on your way to maintaining your independence as you age.

Where to Find Protein:

SOURCE Amount to Eat Grams (gm) Protein
1% Lowfat Cottage Cheese 1 cup 28 gm
Turkey 3 Ounces 25 gm
Halibut or Salmon ½ Fillet (5.5 ounces) 40 gm
Tuna Salad 1 cup 33 gm
Edamame (frozen green soybeans, cooked) 1 cup 17 gm
Sardines, canned, drained 3.5 ounces (1 can) 23 gm
Beans (Pinto, Kidney, Lima, Garbanzo, Black, Navy, Baked) 1 cup 15 gm
Herring, pickled 3 ounces 12 gm
Ground Beef 3 ounces 20 gm
Yogurt 8 ounces 10 to 12 gm
Milk, Plain or Soy 8 ounces 8 gm
Peanuts 1 ounce 8 gm
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 7 gm
Peas, green 1 cup 7 gm
Bagel One 3.5 inch diameter 7 gm
Egg, Hard boiled 1 large 6 gm
Quinoa (grain), cooked 1 cup 8 gm
Oatmeal, boiled 1 cup 6 gm
Bread, whole wheat 1 slice 3.5 gm
Peanut Butter 2 Tablespoons 8 gm
Almonds ¼ cup 7.5 gm
Cashews ¼ cup 5 gm
Pistachios ¼ cup 6 gm
Walnuts ¼ cup 4.5 gm


  1. Chernoff, R: Protein and Older Adults. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 23, No. 90006, 627S-630S (2004)
  2. Castaneda C, Charnley JM, Evans WJ, Crim MC: Elderly women accommodate to a low-protein diet with losses of body cell mass, muscle function, and immune response. Am J Clin Nutr 62 :30 –39,1995.
  3. Kurpad AV, Vaz M: Protein and amino acid requirements in the elderly. Eur J Clin Nutr54(Suppl) 3 :S131 –S142,2000.
  4. Wija, A et al: Dairy Products as Essential Contributors of (Micro-) Nutrients in Reference Food Patterns: An Outline for Elderly People. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 27, No. 6, 747S-754S (2008).
  5. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/SR20/nutrlist/sr20a203.pdf