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Millions of women are 'under-muscled.' These foods help build strength

This tuna, chickpea and parmesan salad bowl packs a protein punch, which is crucial for building muscle strength.
Allison Aubrey
This tuna, chickpea and parmesan salad bowl packs a protein punch, which is crucial for building muscle strength.

Updated March 18, 2024 at 12:22 PM ET

If you've seen a loved one take a bad fall – like my mother did a few months ago – you know the importance of muscle strength.

Muscle mass peaks in our 30s and then starts a long, slow decline. Muscle-loss, also called sarcopenia, affects more than 45% of older Americans, especially women.

"As a country, we are under-muscled," says Richard Joseph, a wellness-focused physician. It's a key culprit of physical decline.

Loss of strength increases the risk of falling, the top cause of death from injury in older adults. The Office on Women's Health recently launched a sarcopenia awareness campaign to elevate the issue.

The good news: No matter your age, you can take steps to maximize your strength. Resistance training is key, but equally important, is eating adequate amounts of protein.

If you don't consume enough protein, "you're missing half of the equation," says nutrition and exercise scientist Rachele Pojednic, a researcher at Stanford Lifestyle Medicine. But millions of older women in the U.S. don't consume enough protein, research shows.

Protein is critically important because it's in all our cells — including muscle cells — and our bodies constantly recycle it. There's a steady demand for new supplies, and protein-rich foods provide the amino acids that become the building blocks of the new proteins our bodies need.

As we age, the goal is to consume protein from food at a faster rate than our body is breaking it down. When you add in resistance training, this will help maintain muscle mass, Pojednic says.

So how much is enough? The recommended intake is a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That's about 0.36 grams of protein multiplied by your weight in pounds. That means a person who weighs 150 pounds should consume at least 54 grams of protein a day.

But many experts say more is optimal. As we age, protein needs to increase. And if you are exercising a lot – which is the way to build new muscle — you may benefit from even more.

Sports medicine expertsrecommend up to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day for people who are actively training, which is about 115 grams for a 150 pound person.

Most young adults tend to consume the recommended amounts of protein. But, later in life, a study from 2019 found about 30% of men in their 50s and 60s fall short, and nearly half of women aged 50 and older do.

So, as part of my project on healthy aging, I decided to up my protein intake. I was advised to aim for 90 grams of protein a day, which, at first I found challenging. So, I asked experts to share some key foods and strategies to help pack more protein into my meals. Here are some ideas:

Here's an example of a high-protein breakfast. Estimates are from food labels and <a href="https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/care-near-you/northern-california/northvalley/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2015/10/Protein-Food-Contents-JW-07.12.13_tcm28-710093.pdf">this protein guide</a> from Kaiser Permanente.
Allison Aubrey/Katie Hayes Luke / NPR
Here's an example of a high-protein breakfast. Estimates are from food labels and this protein guide from Kaiser Permanente.

1. Amp up your morning bowl of Greek yogurt

At about 17 grams per ¾ cup serving, Greek yogurt is a great source of protein. You can eat it plain, add sweet or savory toppings, or throw it into a smoothie. "It's super versatile and high in casein protein, which is slow to digest, which keeps you full while also promoting muscle protein synthesis," which is the process of building muscle mass, Pojednic says.

2. Eggs are an easy way to get protein on the go

At 6 grams of protein for a large egg, hard boiled eggs are a go-to option. If you hard boil a dozen eggs and keep them in the refrigerator, they're ready to grab and go. And, whether you like scrambled or poached, eating an egg in the morning - or as a mid-morning snack, can hold you to lunch. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines say an egg a day won't raise heart disease risk in healthy people, but some adults may need to limit eggs due to cholesterol concerns.

3. Power up your smoothies with powdered protein

If you've got a blender and some fruits and veg on hand, you're ready to go. "We have a big smoothie game in our house," Joseph says. "I love smoothies, my kids love smoothies," he says and it's easy to add extra protein by blending in a scoop of protein powder. Whey protein powder, which is derived from the cheesemaking process when whey and curds are separated, has all of the essential amino acids our bodies need, and it's another great option for high protein on the go. I like to buy big bags of frozen berries for my smoothies and toss in spirulina, an algae that's high in protein. Also, if my bananas or greens are getting too ripe, I add them, so they don't go to waste.

The parmesan cheese on this tuna and chickpea salad has a surprising amount of protein.
Allison Aubrey/Katie Hayes Luke / NPR
The parmesan cheese on this tuna and chickpea salad has a surprising amount of protein.

4. Add some tuna to your salad

Fish is chockablock full of protein. Cod has approximately 40 grams per serving and salmon and tuna both have approximately 30 grams. And Rachele Pojednic says fish is an excellent source of unsaturated, rather than saturated fat, so that's a plus for heart health. One super simple option is to toss a can of strained tuna over a bed of greens, then add fruit and nuts for crunch. And, voilà, you've hit your protein target!

5. Sprinkle in protein with nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds tend to be about the same – or even better – in the protein category thanlegumes, so try sprinkling them on salads and rice bowls, Pojednic says. Hemp and pumpkin seeds both have around 8 grams for a ¼ cup serving, and you can add them as healthy "crunchies" on top of yogurt, oatmeal, salads or bowls, she says. Pumpkin seeds also contain plenty of magnesium, beneficial for heart health.

6. Meat in small doses adds a protein punch

Meat is a top source of protein, serving up about7 grams of protein per ounce, and many dietitians say to aim for lean cuts, such as chicken breast or lean ground turkey. But as many people aim to cut back, there are plenty of plant-based alternatives. Anew study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month finds adequate protein intake in midlife – especially plant protein – is linked to significantly higher odds of healthy aging.

This high-protein dinner features eggplant stuffed with black beans.
Allison Aubrey/Katie Hayes Luke / NPR
This high-protein dinner features eggplant stuffed with black beans.

7. Tasty ways to eat tofu and beans

Lentils and chickpeas are two of my favorite plant protein sources, which are delicious on their own or in curries and soups. You can also cook up a potful and keep them in the fridge ready to add to salads. There's also tofu and edamame, which are affordable and available at most supermarkets. Lesser known options include Tempeh (soy based) which comes in at approximately 18-20 grams of protein per serving. Here's a hack to prevent tofu mush: I sprinkle a little cornstarch on diced tofu and pan fry it, which makes it crispy on the outside. Then I toss in sauces, such as peanut sauce or pesto.

8. Don't miss out higher-protein grains

I love the nutty taste and chewy texture of farro, anancient grain that's won over a lot of fans. It's easy to cook – just toss the grain into boiling water and let it simmer. A few cups makes enough for several meals. At twice the protein, it's an "awesome swap for rice," Pojednic says. And farro also has a lot more fiber. Quinoa is another good option, it has approximately 8 grams of protein per cup.

9. Don't forget veggies

Vegetables are not the main players when it comes to protein, but they can add a few grams. For instance, a cup of broccoli contains about 2.6 grams. And greens and colorful vegetables contain many beneficial vitamins, micronutrients and antioxidant compounds which are good for health. Eating a salad a day is linked to a sharper memory, too. So keep a bowl of chopped vegetables to snack on and blend into salads, stews and soups.

We'd like to hear – or see – how you are packing protein into your diet. You can share your tips and photos here in the form below. Or drop us a line at thrive@npr.org

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh & Carmel Wroth

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.