It's Not How Much Protein You Need . . . It's When

Every year you lose something -- and we're not talking about your mind, or even your hair. We're talking about your lean body mass. It's what pretty much everything in your body (except fat) is made of, meaning your skin, bones, and parts of your organs and muscles. Once you hit the not-so-ripe-old-age of 40, your lean mass starts to shrink by 8% each decade. Fast forward to your 70s, and the shrinkage nearly doubles to 15% per decade. The result: less muscle, more flab, and a metabolism that becomes slower than a tortoise swimming through sludge. Unless you do something about it.

Time to do something about it! And you can, because this loss, like memory loss, is not inevitable. You lose lean body mass (known in med-speak as sarcopenia) for two reasons: First, your body starts making less protein, the stuff lean mass is made of. Second, it starts breaking down the protein you do have. So the first step to staying lean and mean is feeding yourself enough protein.

No sweat. Protein's easy to get. You can find plenty of it without ever going near artery-clogging steak or baby-back ribs: Heart-smart foods like nuts, fish (salmon and trout are our favorites), beans, low-fat dairy, egg whites, soy foods, and skinless white poultry are full of protein. But just getting enough protein (most of us do) isn't enough. Turns out -- and this is big, people -- how often you eat protein is as important as how much. The key to preserving your lean body mass (think of it as the "Wow, you look great!" factor) is making sure you get enough protein at every meal (put some walnuts on that oatmeal, Mom!), according to new research at the University of Texas.

That's where it's easy to go off the rails. Think about it: How often during the week do you eat almost no protein at breakfast (the coffee and bagel drill), gear up your protein intake at lunch (tuna-salad time), but then load up (as in a hunk of meat) at dinner? Yet, unlike fat or carbs, your body can't store protein. Eat more than you need, and it gets socked away as fat. Eat too little, and your body will simply tear down your lean mass to get more.

In other words, your body needs a steady supply of protein (remember, if you don't use it you'll lose it). So divvy it up throughout the day. If you're a reasonably average-sized adult, grab 15 to 18 grams of protein in each of 5 or 6 meals and snacks. What on earth does that mean in terms of real food? Here's a mini buffet of examples:

  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on your whole-wheat toast: 11 grams
  • A bowl of high-protein cereal (Kashi Go Lean): about 19 grams, including the skim milk
  • A bowl of plain Cheerios with skim milk and 6 walnut halves: about 14 grams
  • A weekend omelet with 2 egg whites and 1 whole egg: 12 grams
Morning and Afternoon Snacks
  • 1/4 cup of nuts (a small handful): 5 to 10 grams
  • 1/2 cup nonfat cottage cheese (add some chunks of fresh fruit): 14 grams
  • 1/2 cup of garlicky hummus scooped up with a whole-wheat pita: 14 grams
  • A container of plain nonfat, no-added-sugar Greek yogurt: 14 grams
  • A glass of nonfat milk or soymilk anytime you're thirsty: 8 to 10 grams
Lunch and Dinner
  • Sliced turkey breast (3 ounces) on whole-wheat: at least 29 grams
  • 1 cup of quinoa (it's like tiny, fluffy rice but high in protein) with a few nuts: about 10 grams
  • 1 cup of beans added to your veggie chili: at least 16 grams
  • 1/2 cup tuna tossed into your big veggie dinner salad: 20 grams
  • A fist-sized serving (3 ounces) of any skinless white-meat poultry or fish: 18 to 25 grams
What does your body do when that protein hits your stomach? Breaks it down into amino acids. There are lots of these -- 20 to be exact, with weird names like leucine, threonine, and asparagine. The aminos are whisked off to your liver, which mixes and matches them in all kinds of creative combinations to form antibodies, hormones, enzymes and -- yup -- lean body mass. Just what we YOU Docs ordered: Steady supplies of protein that help you stay young and excel at telling your brain you're full, so you eat enough, but not too much.


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