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I recently attended a symposium in Sydney put on by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) to hear the new science around the influence of protein intakes and exercise on our body composition as we age. The thought of being able to prevent saggy arms and a pot belly as we age by simply eating the right foods at the right time was presented by Professor Caryl Nowson from Deakin University.


It’s long been known that as we age, we become fatter and lose valuable lean mass, or muscle. Diet has been shown to influence this combined with exercise, or lack there of. The common phrase of ‘use it or lose it’ has become a theory in the quest to retain muscle but exercise alone isn’t enough. The team from Deakin University have shown that our eating patterns here in Australia and the types of food choices we make are the cause of our undesirable ‘sag’.


Progressive muscle loss starts to happen from the early age of 45 and can if left to deteriorate with age, affect ones ability to perform everyday tasks. With the change to body composition, those in their 40’s start to feel fat and go on weight loss diets to get rid of the flab and become taut again. Weight loss diets, depending on the caloric level and food restrictions of the plan, can lead to not only fat loss but more muscle loss.


Muscle is what we call active tissue. It constantly burns energy without us actually doing any conscious movement.  Fat on the other hand is lazy tissue. It doesn’t burn any energy.  So the more active tissue we have, the more energy we burn.  Muscle and lean mass is associated with healthy immune systems, hearts, mental and bone health. So how do we maintain our muscle mass as we age and keep looking trim, taut and terrific…


Eat Healthy:

  • Include a rich source of protein at every meal to build and maintain muscle mass.  Including a portion that supplies ~20-30g is ideal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Eat foods rich in calcium like dairy (yoghurt, milk, cheese) or tinned salmon with bones. These foods are rich in protein and calcium for not only muscles but bone health.
  • Make sure you get regular safe exposure to the sun for vitamin D.  This vitamin is needed for bone health and muscle function. Few foods are rich in vitamin D so adequate sunlight is essential.  Office workers and those that spend significant amounts of time in doors put themselves at risk of becoming vitamin D deficient, particularly throughout winter.


Move More:

  • Include resistance exercises that help build strength 3 times a week.  Resistance or strength training will stimulate muscles to utilise protein from your diet to become stronger and not waste away.
  • Include activities that work your heart each day for 30-60mins. This could be High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), group circuit training, jogging, cycling, swimming or a combination to mix it up. Activities that include some impact help to build bone strength. For example, the impact your body has with punching boxing bags or skipping as it jumps on and off the ground are better for bone health than simple walking or cycling.
  • Never forget to include more incidental exercise. Standing more, taking the stairs and walking a few extra stops to catch the bus or train home all work our muscles and keep them switched on and activated.  


Food sources that are rich in protein include:

Animal products – chicken, fish, red meat, pork, eggs, dairy (milk, yoghurt, cheeses like bocconcini, buffalo mozzarella and quark).

Plant products – beans like chickpeas, soy and butter to name a few, lentils, soy products like tofu, nuts and new novel ingredients like quorn.


When including these foods at meals, aim to have a serve that provides around 20-30g of dietary protein. Dietary protein differs to the weight of the serve eaten, for example, 15g of dietary protein is found in 95g tin of tuna when drained, ½ cup (65g) poached or roasted chicken breast meat, or ½ cup of beans.


The truth in timing protein intake for body composition:

Word out on the street in the research world is that spreading our dietary protein out in equal amounts across the day helps to minimise muscle loss. The magic number sits at 20-30g at each meal, more if energy needs are higher. Associate Professor Anna Raglan from the University of Sydney has conducted research into the dietary patterns of Australians using the national Health Survey data of 2011-2012. Her findings show that the average Australian eats the least amount of dietary protein at breakfast and the most at dinner.


To prevent muscle loss as we age, A.Professor Raglans findings combined with Professor Nowsons research suggest that Australians would benefit from changing their food choices at breakfast and lunch to include more quality sources of protein to reach the 20-30g.


Putting this into practice, some appropriate breakfast options could be:

  • Frittata’s made with eggs, vegetables and cottage cheese
  • Breakfast wraps with chicken or tofu, vegetables and cheese
  • Higher protein cheeses like cottage, quark or bocconcini on whole grain toast with beans
  • Greek or higher protein yoghurts with natural muesli and nuts
  • Smoothies with Greek yoghurt, skim milk powder, fresh fruit and crunchy granola to top it off


Some lunch options could be:

  • DIY salad: ½ cup poached chicken, ¼ cup mixed beans, leafy salad and ½ cup of your favourite whole grain of choice. This might be some black rice, cous cous, quinoa or buckwheat  Add a small amount of your favourite dressing for flavour or use a simple balsamic vinegar and olive oil mix.
  • Convenient wraps: 1 wholegrain wrap (like goodness superfoods barley wraps) filled with 2 tins of tuna tempters, a slice of cheese and lots of salad greens.
  • Left-overs: make a stir-fry the night before and fill a take away container with ½ veg before filling the other half with 50:50 your protein and grain of choice.
  • Buy from the food hall: 3 sushi rolls or a small bento box of mixed sashimi and nori pieces, or a small take away stir-fry (these will have less vegetable and more noodle from home prepared versions although still meet the protein dose).


So to prevent your abs from going from washboard to marshmallow like and your arms from turning into flapping flags in the wind…

  1. Boost your breakfasts and lunches with foods rich in protein
  2. Include some strength exercise 3 x a week
  3. Work your heart every day for 30-60mins with a mix of cardio activities
  4. Enjoy the outdoors for adequate and safe sun exposure for vitamin D


Use it or lose it and eat right to maintain it!


Written by

Jennifer Madz, Senior Dietitian

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