As you age, your body undergoes many different changes. One common age-related shift is loss of muscle mass, which can happen at a rate of around 3% loss of strength with every passing year once you enter middle adulthood. This is also known as sarcopenia.
“Sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, can begin as early as one’s thirties and can result in a nearly 15% lean muscle loss due to aging throughout your lifetime,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “And while this isn’t always avoidable, it can be slowed through our diet and lifestyle.”
Fighting sarcopenia involves a focused balance of both movement and nutrition, with things like a sedentary lifestyle and lack of dietary protein being common culprits of accelerating muscle aging. But when it comes to diet, it may take more than just adding protein.
Read on to learn more about helpful eating habits you can incorporate to slow the aging muscle process, and for more healthy aging tips check out 6 Best Breakfasts to Slow Aging.
One of the most foundational eating habits to pay attention to when it comes to slowing muscle aging is making sure you’re consuming enough high-quality protein.
“All animal food sources are complete proteins, and plant sources of complete protein include hemp seeds, quinoa, tofu, edamame, tempeh, nutritional yeast, and a combination of beans and rice,” says Best.
A complete protein has all 9 essential amino acids, which our bodies do not produce on their own, meaning we need them from the food we eat. Most plant proteins like vegetables are considered incomplete proteins, but if you have a balanced diet, you should still be able to hit your required amino acid profile.
And while some people may feel they need an exact amount, Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and member of our medical expert advisory board says you may not need to focus as much on this.
“Rather than fixate on exact grams with people (which tends to confuse them), I advise being sure to include protein at each meal like milk, yogurt, eggs, chicken, fish, lean meat, nuts, and beans.”
According to Best, another crucial habit to get into for protecting your muscle strength is incorporating plenty of omega-3 fatty acids into your daily diet.
“Omega-3s are linked to muscle health due to their anti-inflammatory nature,” says Best. “And the lower the rate of inflammation in the body, the less likely muscle cells are being broken down or damaged.”
Vitamin D is important for your bone health, mental health, your body’s calcium absorption, and your muscle health as well.
“Vitamin D is another important factor in your diet to prevent muscle breakdown because it assists in muscle protein synthesis and is also an anti-inflammatory in the body,” says Best. “Many foods high in vitamin D are fortified with this vitamin and include juices, milk, yogurts, and cereals.”
Similarly to omega-3s, if you feel you aren’t getting enough vitamin D through your daily diet then you can supplement this as well. However, talk with a doctor before supplementing, as it’s also possible you can have too much of this vitamin.
Your calorie intake, whether increasing it or decreasing it, can play a significant role in helping to fight sarcopenia as you age. Whether you need more or less entirely depends on what is recommended by your doctor.
What we mean by this is that for some, it’s a common struggle to not get enough nutrient-dense calories as you age because of age-related changes in appetite. This lack of nutrition can contribute to accelerated muscle aging. But for others, a calorie restriction plan may actually help with muscle aging.
According to a study published in the journal Aging, restricting calories without losing nutrients can possibly help with synthesizing muscle protein, delaying atrophy, and improving overall muscle strength. However, you should definitely talk with your doctor about your individual needs when it comes to your calorie intake.
Protein is certainly a crucial nutrient for your muscle strength, but it’s important not to forget about incorporating healthy carbs, too.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, carbohydrates are necessary for building muscle strength because of the energy they provide your body for working out and getting enough exercise. Harvard Health also suggests combining a protein source with a carbohydrate after your workouts to help build more muscle.
In one study of over 800 elderly Korean adults, it was found that a combination of important nutrients like carbs, protein, fiber, and certain vitamins like zinc, vitamin B6, and carotene were helpful in lowering the risk of developing sarcopenia. When thinking of meals to cook for yourself that meet these nutrition suggestions, consider ways you can get plenty of protein while still consuming healthy carbs. An example would be a lean chicken breast with veggies and a sweet potato, or fish with rice and vegetables.