Building powerful muscles isn’t just something for body builders, athletes and gym goers. Throughout life, from when we are babies through to our senior years, we need to look after our muscles to keep them strong and working at their best.
Regular exercise is vital for this, but so too, is eating a nutritious, balanced diet. Protein is usually the main nutrient we think about when it comes to keeping muscles strong – and with good reason. It’s essential for muscles to grow – this means it’s vital to get enough during childhood, the teenage years, during pregnancy or after working out. But protein is equally important for maintaining our muscle mass and strength throughout life, especially from middle age onwards. The protein in milk and other dairy products can help us meet our recommended intakes and support our muscles’ growth and maintenance.
The mid-life muscle crisis
By the time we are in our early 40s, we start to lose muscle size and strength as a natural part of getting older. Between the ages of 40 and 80 years, it’s estimated our muscle mass drops by 30-50%. How quickly this happens depends partly on how active we are – if we’re inactive this tends to happen more quickly – but this loss of muscle speeds up when we’re in our 50s and this can impact on our health in several ways.
Firstly, it can affect our metabolism. A drop in muscle mass means a drop in our metabolism, so we burn fewer calories. If we don’t adjust the amount of calories we consume to compensate for this, over time we can put on weight.
Our muscles also help to support our joints – if our muscles are weak, our joints are put under greater pressure so may start to wear out more quickly.
Over time, muscle weakness can also affect our mobility, balance and posture, making us more likely to suffer with falls and fractures. This can make us even less active, so we lose even more muscle strength.
Staying as active as possible, exercising regularly – particularly including muscle-strengthening and weight bearing exercises – and making sure we get enough protein in our diet can help slow down the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs with age.
The Reference Intake for protein is set at 50g a day. However, our need for protein varies according to our age, size, gender and activity levels – for example, the bigger we are, the more protein we need. In fact, guidelines on how much protein we need are based on how heavy we are – these guidelines recommend 0.75g protein for every kilogram we weigh. This means someone who weighs 70kg needs around 53g of protein a day.
However, Health Authorities around the world recognise the importance of including more protein in our diets as we age and studies suggest that increasing our protein intake from middle age onwards may be a good idea to help offset the decline in muscle mass that naturally occurs as we get older. Quite simply, it’s better to try and slow down this loss of muscle as much as possible.
“Older adults who are frail, sarcopenic or undernourished need a protein-dense diet that provides adequate energy and should engage in resistance exercise.”
Food Safety Authority of Ireland
The protein in milk and dairy products are an easy way for us to add protein to our diet every day.
Make time for protein
There’s evidence that spreading protein out more evenly over the day – rather than having a large amount of protein with our evening meal but little at breakfast or lunch – may be better for preserving our muscle strength. Dairy products make this very easy to do…
Milk with cereal or porridge
Cheese in a sandwich
Low fat soft cheese on rye crackers
Cheddar cheese grated on pasta
Yogurt with fruit
Milky hot chocolate
WINNERS FOR WORKOUTS
Carb loading, extra protein and downing sport’s drinks might seem like a necessity when we’re working out. But for regular everyday exercise, such as an hour at the gym, doing a fitness class or going for a short run, there’s no need for an ‘athlete’s’ diet, supplements or special drinks. Nevertheless, it’s vital to stay hydrated, enjoy a healthy, balanced diet and eat at the right times to get the most from our workouts.
Food for fitness
Dairy products are an important part of a healthy diet, and are particularly good choices after exercising, thanks to the unique and natural package of nutrients they contain. Here’s what’s in dairy that makes it such a great choice for when we are active…
- Fluid – being a liquid, a glass of milk contains a lot of water content – helping us stay hydrated. To perform our best, it’s important to stay hydrated before, during and after exercise.
- Carbohydrate – milk and yogurt contain carbohydrate in the form of lactose (the natural sugar in milk). Carbs are the body’s main energy providers and they fuel our muscles and brain.
- Protein – dairy products are rich in protein, a nutrient that’s vital for building muscles and keeping them strong.
- Vitamins and minerals – milk, cheese and yogurt provide several nutrients that can help us get the most from our workouts, including:
- Vitamins B2 and B12 – these release energy from food and reduce tiredness and fatigue
- Calcium and potassium – they’re needed for normal muscle function
- Iodine – this nutrient, found in milk and yogurt, helps to maintain normal thyroid function and makes thyroid hormones, which help to regulate our metabolism
- Electrolytes – milk contains the electrolytes calcium, sodium and potassium, which can help replace those lost through sweat.
What to eat…
…before a workout
Have a meal 3 to 4 hours before exercising. This should include starchy carbohydrates (these are stored in our muscles as glycogen, ready to be used by our body when we’re exercising) together with a moderate amount of protein. Alternatively, have a carb-rich snack 1 to 2 hours before exercising.
…after a workout
Eat a meal or snack containing carbs and protein within 30 minutes of exercising. Carb-containing foods like pasta, rice and potatoes are important for fuelling our glycogen stores after high intensity exercise, but it’s also important to enjoy them with protein-rich foods. This is because protein helps to maintain muscle mass and growth.
Dairy products make great protein partners for starchy carbs both before and after workouts.
Try the following combos:
Jacket potato + cheese
Wholewheat pasta + cheese sauce
Wholegrain bread + Cheddar
Porridge oats + semi-skimmed milk
Fruit + Greek style yogurt
Oatcakes + low-fat soft cheese
Fruit + semi-skimmed milk (made into a milkshake)
Wholegrain cereal + plain low-fat yogurt
Wholemeal pitta + tzatziki (made from plain low-fat yogurt, cucumber, lemon juice and garlic)
The ultimate protein shake
Protein shakes are often popular with people who regularly work out, but milk makes a great and often cheaper alternative. The protein in milk naturally packaged together with heaps of other nutrients that the body is able to easily use. Studies show milk nutrition makes a great post-workout drink because…
- milk sugar (lactose) provides the muscles with glycogen
- milk is 90% water and so can help us stay hydrated
- milk provides protein, important for the growth and maintenance of muscle, B vitamins that help reduced tiredness and fatigue, and calcium and protein which are needed for normal muscle function
Last reviewed: 03/2021
Next review due: 03/2023