Check and double check the labels on the back of products prior to consumption, log the total number of calories per meal or snack, and fit in a daily exercise routine to keep muscles intact.

Sounds like the perfect plan for healthy aging, right? Sadly, it might not be enough.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein, a value that serves as the suggested amount of protein an individual must consume based on their body weight, is approximately 0.36 grams per pound. This means an elderly woman of ideal weight (152 pounds) should be consuming roughly 55 grams of protein every day, and an elderly man of ideal weight (184 pounds) should be consuming roughly 66 grams of protein every day.

Unfortunately, most older adults don’t meet the recommended dietary allowance of protein. Approximately 31 million people in the United States skip breakfast, implying a zero percent protein intake, whereas dinnertime consumption offers the highest protein intake out of all three suggested meals. Clearly, there’s a vast imbalance in protein intake across meals eaten throughout the day.

A better approach to protein may be to spread intake over the course of the day. This means more protein at breakfast and lunch, perhaps less at dinner. A study performed at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, concluded that uniformly distributed protein consumption across the three suggested meals per day shows an upward trend in muscle mass strength among individuals between the ages of 67 and 84 (1).

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, took place over the course of three years and gathered data from 827 men and 914 women. Participants completed six random dietary recalls, three 24-hour food recalls at the baseline year, and three during year two of the study.  In short, on random days’ participants would be required to give a list of all foods, drinks, and snacks consumed in a 24-hour period (1).

The study’s subjects also underwent annual physical performance tests organized into two categories, muscle strength and mobility.

Muscle strength tests included handgrip, arm, and leg strength tests whereas, mobility tests consisted of the timed up- and- go test, the chair stand test, and the walking speed at normal and fastest pace test (1).

  • Timed up-and-go test (TUG)—measured the time it took for participants to rise from a chair, walk three meters, return to the chair and sit down
  • The chair stand test—focused on the speed at which an individual can stand up and sit down on a chair five times
  • The walking speed at normal and fastest pace test—examines walking a four-meter course at the subject’s normal and fastest pace

The accumulation of the dietary recall data and composite scores from the physical performance tests showed that men and women who had consumed protein more evenly across their three meals performed much higher on their muscle strength tests than those who consumed a varied amount of protein at each meal. In addition, only men showed a high mobility score with the consumption of a uniformly distributed amount of protein (1).

Commenting on the study in the same journal, Stuart M. Phillips, Ph.D., director at McMaster University Centre for Nutrition, Exercise, and Health Research, wrote that modifying skeletal muscle through the consumption of evenly distributed protein can help with the loss of muscle tissue that naturally occurs as part of the aging process, or sarcopenia (2).

“Older persons should aim to build up as much of a functional muscle mass (homeostatic reserve) as they can to provide a buffer against age-related sarcopenia and ultimately, age-related physical frailty,” Dr. Phillips wrote.

The new study also draws parallels with nutrition researcher Paul Arciero’s, Ph.D., coined term, “protein pacing” that involves exceeding the RDA and more equally distributing protein intake. This nutritional strategy can help fuel the energy needed for older adults to get through the day and can help hinder muscle strength from degradation.


  1. Farsijani, S., Payette, H., Morais, J. A., Shatenstein, B., Gaudreau, P., & Chevalier, S. (2017). Even mealtime distribution of protein intake is associated with greater muscle strength, but not with 3-y physical function decline, in free-living older adults: the Quebec longitudinal study on Nutrition as a Determinant of Successful Aging (NuAge study).The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.146555
  2. Phillips, S. M. (2017). Nutrition in the elderly: a recommendation for more (evenly distributed) protein?The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi:10.3945/ajcn.117.159863