5 Nutrition Strategies for the Aging Athlete

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Written by: Stephanie Boville MSc, RD, Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist

In general, our society is becoming more health conscious, which is great! People are living longer and want to feel younger as they age. I often work with aging athletes, and older adults to help provide guidance on how they can use different nutrition strategies to help them reach their goals, whether health or fitness related. Some common issues I find older adults face include recovery, strength and body composition changes. If you are over 50 I encourage you to keep reading!

Sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is the term used to describe the gradual muscle mass loss seen in older adults. We know that in general once you hit age 50, you start to lose about 1% of your lean body mass per year. This is concerning for a few reasons. First, the loss of muscle mass means you may lose functionality, ie you may be unable to lift groceries like you used to. It also can result in changes in balance and stability which may lead to increased risk of falls. Lastly, because our muscle mass is a metabolically active tissue (ie it stores and burns carbohydrates and fats) the decreased muscle mass can decrease the metabolic efficiency and storage of carbohydrates and fats and can lead to development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. This results in a huge stress on our health care system and therefore it is important for us to think about nutrition strategies to maintain our muscle mass as we age.

Middle aged man golfing

Why do we lose muscle mass?

It is not known for certain why we lose muscle mass as we age, whether we have general decreased muscle building and/or increased muscle breakdown or a lower sensitivity for turning on protein synthesis (ie it takes more protein to increase muscle building). Either way, we can have higher muscle breakdown than build up, and thus a loss of lean tissue.

What can we do about it? 

The first point I want to make is not related to nutrition. It is well known that resistance training is a VERY powerful stimulus of muscle building capacity and aged muscles respond to resistance training similar to young muscles. Resistance training in combination with very easy nutrition changes can help retain, maintain and possibly even build muscle mass in older adults.

Nutrition Strategies

Protein Canadian Food Guide

1. Increase the protein intake

In a westernized country like Canada, we often get enough protein, however I do notice that older athletes or adults may still need to bump up their intake to maximize recovery. The reason for this recommendation is because we know that an older adult will not respond to a 20g dose of protein like a younger person would, and a higher dose of protein is needed to stimulate muscle building. Some older adults experience decreased appetite and will reduce portions, leading to lower overall protein intake.  We need to remember that our protein needs are higher compared to when we were young!

2. Protein quality is important

Research does show that soy protein vs whey or beef protein is less effective to stimulate muscle building. Even though soy is a complete protein (has the same amino acid make up as meat) it seems as though it is processed differently in the body. Mainly, the protein in soy seems to be digested slower resulting in less of an increase in amino acid levels in the blood and thus decreased stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Very careful nutrition planning is necessary if you are an older adult who adheres to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

3. Dairy

Dairy has the amino acid Leucine, which is a branch chain amino acid. It is a potent stimulator of muscle build up and can assist in maintaining lean mass. Not only is dairy a source of leucine, but adding a cup of milk (cow or soy only) to your meal will add about 8g of protein, which actually could be all the changes you need to make to meet the protein needs at your breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition, consuming dairy products will provide you with calcium and vitamin D to assist in prevention of osteoporosis! Win win right?!

4. Distribution

We talked about the amount of protein, and the quality and now we get to the timing! If we look at typical protein amounts at each meal of the general population, we typically consume very little protein at breakfast, moderate amounts at lunch and a HUGE portion at dinner. This is a very skewed distribution of your protein and very little protein synthesis occurs until the dinner time, where not all of that protein can even be used and is therefore wasted. Having multiple doses throughout the day at regular time intervals is the best method of feeding and maintaining your muscle mass. You also want to make sure you place your protein at appropriate times to ensure adequate recovery from exercise bouts.

5. Supplements

If you are an older adult who is engaging in regular exercise, supplements like protein powder might be common place in your dietary plan. One other supplement that has been shown to have some benefits for older adults is creatine. First we must understand that the muscle stores phosphocreatine and it is a substrate that can quickly and easily be used to provide energy for activity lasting only 5-15 seconds. The second is that it is an anabolic stimulant, meaning the higher storage of creatine results in increased muscle protein synthesis and growth. The theory is that the more creatine in the muscle, the harder you can train, thus getting a better workout while getting a larger response of muscle strength and growth. Research does show that proper dietary strategies + weight training + creatine supplementation can result in additional muscle building, increased strength and also an increase in functional movement in older adults. Proper dosing is needed to elicit results, and there are a few contraindications for using such a supplement.  Independent assessment for this supplementation is needed.

Supplements into blender for smoothie

As we age, nutrition has an essential role to play in our health and wellbeing. Food can help fuel our bodies, keep our muscles strong, maintain our functionality, decrease our risk of chronic medical conditions, and overall help us age gracefully. For more information about how you can keep your body healthy as you age, speak with a registered dietitian. 

Stephanie Boville dietitian GRSM Cambridge
Stephanie Boville MSc, RD
Registered Dietitian

Stephanie is our Registered Dietitian and sport nutritionist. She graduated with Honours from the University of Guelph with a Bachelors of Applied Science specializing in Applied Human Nutrition. She then pursued her passion for sport performance nutrition by completing her Masters of Science degree specializing in Exercise, Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Guelph. Here she was involved in studies investigating the nutritional adequacy of young hockey players and hydration habits of amateur, varsity and elite athletes to name a few. She then completed her internship at London Health Sciences Centre and is currently working there on the Medicine unit. She also has experience working with mental health and eating disorders. She also working towards being a Certified Specialist in Sport Dietetics.

Stephanie spent most of her childhood in the rink as a competitive figure skater, and later was involved in volleyball, track and cross country. During her university years she was drawn to lifting and has continued with this ever since. She is currently enjoying learning the art of Olympic weightlifting. Stephanie believes that every food fits in moderation and truly believes that nutrition has a huge impact on our sport performance and health.

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