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Muscle food: why women need it

Getting physically stronger starts with resistance exercise. But what you eat also makes a difference.

Protein helps us grow muscles.

As you know, ageing plus lack of exercise shrinks muscle. And lack of muscle goes hand-in-hand with loss of bone and loss of function. 

An international team of researchers recently waded through the research on strength training and protein and concluded that the ideal amount is around 1.6g of protein per kg of our body weight.

That’s a lot. 

It’s also a bit surprising because it’s a lot more than previous recommendations. For women the advice has been .75g/kg until age 70, and .95g after that. 

The reason for the increase after 70 is that our body’s capacity to utilise protein drops off as we get older.

So under the current guidelines, if I’m 40, 50 or 60 and I weigh 60 kgs, I need 45g (.75 x 60) of protein a day to maintain healthy muscle. If I’m 70 or over and weigh 60 kgs, I need 57g.

But according to this new research, regardless of my age I need 96g. Big difference.

Protein is found in a broad range of foods — meat, chicken, fish, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, and non-animal sources such as nuts and seeds, legumes and even grain. Of course, there are also protein supplements. 

I’ll list the approximate protein content of most of these and you can do the sums. They’re Joanna McMillan’s figures from her 2017 book Get Lean, Stay Lean. 

Eggs: 6g protein each
Lean meat, fish, poultry: about 27–34g per 100g cooked
Yoghurt: 12g per 200g yoghurt 
Cheese: 8g per 30g cheese 
Nuts and seeds – 5-8g per 30g or ¼ cup 
Lentils: 10g per 100g cooked 
Rolled oats: 5g per 40g or ½ cup 
Quinoa: 8g per cup (or 190g) cooked
Brown rice: 5g per cup (or 185g) cooked
Wholegrain bread: 5g per slice

While it’s hard to calculate precisely, it’s useful to get a rough idea of how much protein you’re eating. Food labels can help too.

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in December last year showed that most of us don’t eat enough. In many cases that’s because we eat protein at dinner time but not necessarily at other meals.

Our muscles aren’t the only reason to make sure we’re getting enough. Protein also helps to reduce cravings, keep our weight healthy and improve our mood and energy levels. 

But how much is enough, given the recommendations vary so widely? 

There’s not much research on strength training plus protein for older women, but the one study I found was from Finland and used 1g/kg body weight. 

I think .75g is on the low side (for postmenopausal women anyway) and 1.6g is high. Around 1g might be a sensible target. 

But we’re all different. Some of us feel better on more protein than others do, so try it out.  

If you can’t be bothered doing that, at least make sure you include some at each meal and snack.

And don’t forget you also need to use those muscles. Make sure you’re doing some regular strength training. 

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018 | Rhonda Anderson