Healthcare professionals often hear a common question regarding older adults and adequate nutrition: “Are they eating enough protein?”  

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine has developed the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for healthy individuals in the United States.  Based on the current guidelines, there is no difference in protein recommendations for adults of any age. The daily requirements equate to about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight:

Gender Age DRI protein recommendation

  • Males: Ages 19+ yrs. 56 g/day
  • Females: Ages 19+ yrs. 46 g/day

Although these guidelines advise the same amount of protein throughout adulthood, there have been several studies that recommend 20% — 50% higher amounts (1.0-1.2 g/kg body weight/day) for older adults. These studies noted that higher protein intake supports good health, promotes recovery after illness, and helps maintain functional status in people 65 and older. And those with acute or chronic diseases, pressure injuries or malnutrition may benefit the most from this increase. (One notable exception is adults with kidney disease.)

According to these guidelines specific to older adults, the average daily requirements are as follows:

Gender Age DRI protein recommendation

  • Males: Ages >65 yrs. 70-84 g/day
  • Females: Ages >65 yrs. 57-69 g/day

Achieving protein goals for older adults

Unfortunately, close to half of older adults get less than the suggested amount of protein. Many people eat less as they age due to decreased appetite or health concerns. Others may consume the same amount of protein as when they were younger, but their bodies either need more or can’t process it as efficiently. Medications, too, may also impact protein needs.

Balancing protein intake throughout the day will help to ensure maximum benefit, since the maximum amount of protein that can be effectively utilized at one meal is 30 grams. Encourage residents to consume protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and make protein snacks available throughout the day. Some good options include bars, nutrition shakes, cheese and meat sticks, and nuts. Manufacturers introduce new protein-fortified snacks frequently, so be sure to offer a wide variety of foods to prevent boredom and burnout.

Here are some common foods and their average protein content:

Portion SizeProtein (g)
Chicken3 oz.26
Fish3 oz.19
Greek Yogurt6 oz.15-25
Eggs, Hard Boiled2 ea.14
Cottage Cheese1/2 c14
Lentils1/2 c12
Low-Fat Milk8 oz.8
Black Beans1/2 c8
Peanut Butter2 Tbsp.7
Quinoa1/2 c4-11

Keep in mind that while adequate protein is critical, eating more than two grams per kg of body weight per day is considered excessive.  Long-term intake of high levels of protein can result in digestive, kidney and vascular abnormalities, and can also increase blood lipids and the risk of heart failure. Adults who have severe kidney disease (but are not on dialysis) need to limit protein intake as a strategy to slow the decline in kidney function. 

Your community’s registered dietitian and the resident’s physician can collaborate to design the most appropriate meal plan for these special needs.

Phyllis Famularo, DCN, RD, FAND, LDN, serves as a Senior Manager of Nutrition Services for Sodexo Seniors and has worked with the older adult population nutrition in the Northeast for over 30 years. Her primary duties include training of dietitians and regulatory compliance. She is an RDN with a doctorate in clinical nutrition from Rutgers University.

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