Dietary Proteins Role in an Elder's Well-being

By Beth Scholer   CC, CDM, CFPP

Protein requirements for older adults are comparable, or even higher, than their younger counterparts. Unfortunately, many elders do not consume the required amounts of protein.  This can be problematic and lead to frailty, decreased muscle mass, stress to the immune system and poor wound healing.

Increasing Protein Intake

Increasing protein in an elder’s diet can be as simple as following these tips:

✓    Add beans to soups or salads for extra protein (and fiber).

✓    Nuts, seeds and soy nuts make great snacks, choose the unsalted varieties.

✓    Add nuts or seeds to a vegetable stir-fry in place of meat.

✓    Milk and dairy products are good sources of protein; try Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or smoothies made from fruit and yogurt.

✓    Buy individual portions of fish and seafood for quick preparation.

✓    Select seafood that is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, herring and mackerel.

✓    Buy chicken breast that is boneless and skinless; cook extra for easy sandwich or salad additions.

Sources of Protein

Protein can come from animal as well as plant sources.  Animal proteins like chicken, beef, pork, fish and seafood, eggs and dairy products are complete proteins; able to be fully utilized by the body.  Plant sources can be a lower cost option for those on a fixed income.  Try canned or dry beans, nuts, seeds like sunflower or pumpkin, soy products and peanut butter. 

Proteins Role in the Body

Protein is considered a macronutrient; the body requires large amounts to function correctly.  It is essential for the body’s cell growth and repair. Protein is utilized by the body to maintain the immune system and ward off infection.  It also plays a role in skeletal muscle function, helping the body to walk, and even stand. Low protein intake has been linked to increased falls and fractures.

Restricting Protein Intake

The recommend daily protein intake is approximately 50 grams and will vary based on caloric needs.  Research suggests that elders over the age of 55 need even more daily protein.  There are certain cases where protein may be limited. Follow advice from a medical practitioner before restricting protein. 

Patients with chronic kidney disease and diabetes are at higher risk for complications from high protein diets.


Recovering from Illness or Injury

Stress from illness or injury increases the rate that protein is broken down in the body.  In these cases, additional protein should be added to the diet.  Elders with pressure ulcers should receive 50 to 75% more protein in their diets daily; although there are other factors to take into consideration.  Seek the advice of a nutrition professional before making changes to the diet.

Changes to the body with age pose challenges to older patients and increase the risk of protein deficiency and related complications.  The decrease of muscle mass and strength is inevitable in aging, but the complications of falls, fractures and immobility are preventable. Planning a diet with sufficient amounts of protein and other vital nutrients can be the key.


Chef Beth Scholer is certified by the American Culinary Federation and Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals. She is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She can be reached at


Dorner, B. RD, LD.  New Recommendations for Treating Pressure Ulcers. Today’s Dietician.  11 (5) Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

Langendorfer, R. MSN, FNP-BC. Ensuring Adequate Protein Intake. Today’s Geriatric Medicine, 4 (3) Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

National Kidney Foundation. Guideline 5: Nutritional Management in Diabetes and Chronic Kidney Disease.  Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

Scholer, B. (2015) Culinary Skills for Caregivers. Lakewood, CA.  Avid Readers Publishing Group.