Dietary tips to help prevent muscle loss in seniors

Although exercise is the most important way to counteract the process of muscle loss, nutritional factors also play a key role.

From birth to young adulthood your muscles grow larger and stronger. But, beginning in your 30s, you begin to lose muscle mass and function. In seniors marked age-related  loss of muscle mass, strength and function is referred to as sarcopenia. Although a multitude of factors contribute to sarcopenia - the primary being age -  physical inactivity is a key factor. In general, the more physically inactive you are, the more muscle mass you lose.

Sarcopenia is a concern because muscle strength plays an important role in any senior’s ability to stay mobile and physically independent. Poor muscle strength contributes to falls which result in fractures and other injuries, especially in people with weak bones due to osteopenia or osteoporosis.

Dietary tips

Although regular resistance and strength training exercise (with weights or resistance bands) is the most important way to counteract the process of muscle loss, nutrition too can play an important role.

Experts have identified certain nutritional factors which can benefit the maintenance of muscle mass, and conversely, which dietary factors may contribute to loss of muscle mass.1  Reviewing evidence from worldwide studies, they identified the following nutritional factors as important to the maintenance of muscle mass and the prevention of sarcopenia:

  • Protein-rich foods: Protein intake plays an integral part in muscle health. Experts propose an intake of 1.0–1.2 g/kg of body weight per day as optimal for skeletal muscle and bone health in elderly people (does not apply to people with severely impaired renal function). Protein-rich foods include fish, meat, poultry, dairy products, beans and lentils, eggs, tofu and nuts. Quinoa is also rich in protein.
  • Vitamin D:  Getting enough vitamin D is essential. This is best achieved through safe exposure to sunlight. However it is not always easy to get enough vitamin D during the winter months and only a small amount is available in foods (such as fatty fish and eggs). Therefore in seniors aged 60 or over, and especially in institutionalized elderly, IOF recommends vitamin D supplementation for optimal bone and muscle health and to help prevent falls and resulting fractures.
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are not just great for overall health, new evidence also suggests that they are beneficial to both bones and muscles. It has been found that excess intake of acid-producing foods (meat and cereal grains) in combination with low intake of alkalizing foods (fruits and vegetables) may have negative effects on musculoskeletal health. So, as you raise your protein intake, you should also include more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
  • Vitamin B12 and/or folic acid: These may also play a role in improving muscle function and strength, although more research is needed.

Overall, the best strategy to maintain strong muscles (and not just in seniors!) is to combine regular resistance training with good bone-healthy nutrition.

> Find out more about sarcopenia

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1. Impact of nutrition on muscle mass, strength, and performance in older adults. A. Mithal, J.-P. Bonjour,S. Boonen  et al.  for the IOF CSA Nutrition Working Group.