Dietary protein is key to sustaining seniors’ health. Yet a recent study found that half of the older adults in a British county aren’t consuming enough protein to reach national recommendations, putting them at high risk of frailty and musculoskeletal conditions.

The findings are a stark reminder of a larger problem, said the investigators.

“Inadequate protein intake contributes to muscle wastage, impacting physical function and increasing the risk of frailty and mortality through falls,” said Bernard Corfe, Ph.D., of the University of Sheffield. “This risk is again increased in older adults with obesity, who may be unable to exercise or move freely, as their weight may mask the problem.”

Older adults need to eat protein steadily throughout the day to maintain muscle. Specifically, they should consume about 1 ounce of protein at each of three daily meals, according to Elizabeth Williams, senior lecturer in human nutrition at the University of Sheffield. Only one study participant was achieving this goal, the researchers said.

Meat, fish and dairy amounted to 86% of study participants’ protein intake. They consumed the least protein at morning meals. That result suggests a solution – adding more protein at breakfast, Williams said.

“Older adults can easily bolster their protein intake by eating a high-protein breakfast cereal, or an egg and slice of brown toast for breakfast,” suggested Williams. “People should also think about including sustainable and plant-based sources of protein in their diet such as beans, lentils, tofu and peas.”

In the United States, dietary protein guidelines translate to 2.3 ounces of protein per day for a 180-pound adult. But seniors may need more, according to the AARP. A 180-pound senior with sarcopenia, for example, may require 3.5 to 4.3 ounces per day.

As an indicator, a chicken breast contains about 1.2 ounces of protein and an egg contains about 0.2 ounces. 

The study was published in the journal Geriatrics.