You can defy age-related muscle loss.  These foods will help you stay strong and lean.


Sarcopenia.  Sound like a little known Mediterranean Island?  It’s actually a term for age-related muscle loss.  And it happens, in varying degrees, to all of us.  Studies show that starting in our thirties, we lose ½ to 1 percent of our lean muscle mass each year.  Muscle strength also declines by 12-15 percent per decade.  These losses are much more dramatic among people who eat less healthfully, don’t exercise regularly, and even among those who lose a significant amount of weight (muscle tends to vanish along with the fat).  In one study, 30 year olds who were put on bed rest for a month lost an average of a pound of muscle just from their legs.  In a separate study, even greater losses occurred in older adults after just 10 days!


In the short term, any amount of lean muscle or strength loss can cause annoyances ranging from not being able to open a jar of pickles to premature aging (sunken cheeks, more pronounced wrinkling).  And if left unchecked, sarcopenia can lead to a host of issues later in life, including disability and increased mortality risk due to frailty.  It also increases your odds for metabolic disorders and type 2 diabetes, since muscle tissue helps regulate blood sugar, insulin and other hormones.  In fact, it’s estimated that the annual direct health costs of age-related muscle loss soar upwards of 18.5 billion in the U.S., making it a pricier problem than osteoporosis.  Sarcopenia tends to be a slow and insidious process.  It’s not just something that happens when you reach old age.  The parallel is often drawn with osteoporosis.  It’s subtle at first and becomes far more consequential when it has progressed.  That’s why it’s so important to maintain as much lean muscle mass as you can, from your thirties and forties onward.  But even if you start later in life, you can make a big difference.


And that (finally!) brings us to some happy news: there are simple, proven steps you can take to preserve your muscles, and even reverse age-related loss that has already occurred.   And even better: this advice involves eating!  What could be better?

  1. Nosh on high quality protein.  The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle, which is why diet tops the list of the changes you should make.  And one amino acid, called leucine, is particularly good at turning on your body’s muscle-building machinery.  Once that muscle-building switch is flipped (you need to do this at each meal and snack) you’re better able to absorb the amino acids (of any type) from protein in your diet.  Dairy products, especially those high in whey protein like milk and Greek yogurt, are excellent sources of leucine. Lean meat, fish and soy, such as edamame and tofu, are also rich in leucine.
  2. Get at least 15 grams of protein per meal and 8 grams per snack.  Most of us eat a tiny amount at breakfast, a bit more for lunch and our evening meal is a protein frenzy!  But emerging research suggests we should be eating differently.  Getting a consistent, moderate amount of protein at meal and snack-times appears to be optimal for building and maintaining lean muscle mass.  And no: more isn’t better.  Your body doesn’t have the ability to store amino acids as protein, so if you eat more than you need, the excess is either burned off as energy or stored as fat.
    What does this look like in real-life terms?  A two egg omelet with ¼ cup cheese, or Greek yogurt with an ounce of almonds, or a cooked 4 ounce hamburger patty or 5 ounce salmon filet.
  3. Eat your omega-3 fats. These essential fatty acids are known to boost everything from heart health to mood.  And a growing body of research has also linked omega-3’s with muscle maintenance.
    How?  Inflammation in the body causes muscle to break down, and omega-3s are anti-inflammatory powerhouses.  Omega-3s improve the way your muscles use protein, and could actually help treat sarcopenia, not simply prevent it.  Foods like salmon, walnuts and omega-3-enriched eggs give you a nutritional ‘twofer’: you get omega-3s and muscle-building amino acids.  Flaxseeds also give you a hit of omega-3s.  Eating 4 ounces of cooked salmon plus ¼ cup of walnuts a day is about all you need to reap the benefits.
  4. Check your vitamin D levels.  If you’re deficient, consider a supplement using a D3 gel cap, 2,000 IUs (or more if your doctor recommends that you increase the dosage).  Getting adequate levels of vitamin D helps with muscle protein synthesis and fights inflammation, both of which translate into better muscle strength, power and balance.  Note: Usually supplements are meant to be a nutritional safety net.  But as you age, your body becomes less able to make vitamin D through sun exposure (it takes four times as long in people over 60), and it’s tough to get enough through diet. In the case of vitamin D, popping a daily gel cap may be optimal.


For more information, talk with your doctor or Registered Dietitian!


Shaun Dreisbach