Have you flexed a biceps muscle in the mirror lately? Well, there are more important reasons to hold on to your muscle as you age that extend beyond looking good in a T-shirt and avoiding those flabby batwings. Studies show that loss of this metabolically active muscle tissue over the decades is associated with chronic health conditions, including insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease, in addition to frailty, fatigue, and falls. The scientific term for age-related skeletal muscle and strength loss is sarcopenia; it usually begins in one’s 40s.
Fortunately, sarcopenia can be prevented and even reversed in the elderly as well as in middle-aged people who are just starting to notice a loss of muscle mass. Strength training obviously is a big part of the solution, but pumping iron won’t build muscle without the right fuel. Adopting certain key eating habits will fuel your workouts and help your resistance training build new muscle as you age.
According to certified strength and conditioning specialist and sports chiropractor Dr. Matt Tanneberg, CSCS, regaining muscle with exercise requires three main habits: consuming enough calories, consuming enough quality protein, and getting those nutrients throughout your day and especially before and after workouts.
To effectively rebuild muscle, try making the following eating habits another repetition in your strength-training routine.
People trying to shape up often restrict the number of calories they eat. However, this can backfire if you’re looking to add muscle because you need fuel to power resistance exercise and spur muscle growth. Don’t starve or short-change yourself on any of the three macronutrients.
“It’s important to have adequate calories in your diet and actually a caloric surplus, if you’re looking to gain muscle weight,” says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, a member of our Medical Expert Board who also served as a sports dietitian for the Dallas Cowboys.
While many may be under the impression that protein alone is the key to building muscle, experts say that a well-balanced meal is actually a more reliable recipe for success and advise diversifying your diet.
“While protein is the fuel for muscles, you still need to eat a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates and fats to optimize your nutrition for muscle growth,” says Tanneberg.
“Most people eat the bulk of their protein at dinner, but research suggests that it’s easier to build muscle tissue when protein intake is spread throughout the day,” says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, an award-winning nutrition communicator, recipe developer, writer, and co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health and Happiness.
Ward recommends shooting for between 1.2–1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight every day. So, for a person who weighs 160 pounds, this would amount to approximately amounts to 88–117 grams of protein.
“Lean animal foods, such as eggs, lean beef, poultry, and seafood as well as low-fat dairy foods, such as cottage cheese, milk, and Greek yogurt, are excellent sources of complete protein. [This] means they contain all of the amino acids that the body needs to build muscle,” Ward says. “In addition, animal foods are rich in the amino acid leucine, which triggers muscle cell production.”
Plants also contain protein used to make muscle. Soy foods, such as tofu, edamame, and unsweetened soy milk are foods that, like animal foods, supply complete proteins. Other plant foods with protein are beans, such as chickpeas and black beans, quinoa, lentils, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, and walnuts.
Carbohydrates, like whole grains and legumes, as well as some dairy, fruits, and vegetables, are important for muscle grow. As the body’s preferred source of energy, carbs provide an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. What’s more, carbs reprieve protein.