-A new study reveals a diet rich in protein and low in calories can help older adults with obesity lose more weight while maintaining muscle mass and improving bone density.

Older adults often lose bone density and muscle mass when they concentrate on losing extra pounds. This unwanted bone and muscle loss can result in mobility issues and even increase a person’s risk of injury. A recent study at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina has shown that a high-protein, low-calorie diet can help adults avoid these problems.

Several peer-reviewed journals, which include Journals of Gerontology: Medical Science and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have accepted four research papers from the study for publication.

The researchers randomly selected 96 adults over the age of 65 and assigned them to one of two groups. They put the first group on a 6-month low-calorie meal plan that was also high in protein (more than 1g of protein per kg of body weight.) They assigned the other group to a weight-maintenance plan that included 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight.

High-protein, low-calorie

Those in the high-protein, low-calorie diet group experienced the most weight loss, but more revealing was that those in this group also maintained their muscle mass. These individuals lost weight on the stomach, hips, tighs, and rear, which can decrease the risk of certain medical conditions, including stroke and diabetes.

The researchers also found that the participants in the high-protein group actually improved their bone quality, and they gained .75 points on their Health Aging Index (HAI) scores, involving longevity and mortality biomarkers.

Kristin Beavers, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest and lead investigator of this study noted she wanted to find a more cost-effective method outside of “meal planning.” The study asked those in the weight-loss group to use four meal replacements every day and to prepare two meals of lean protein and vegetables each day. The team allowed each participant one healthy snack per day up to a low-calorie, high-protein meal plan. Those in the other group were instructed to maintain their regular diet and usual activities.

Older adults and nutrition

Older adults have unique nutritional needs and may need to make changes to their diets as the years go by. Muscle mass can decrease as a natural part of the aging process and people do not burn calories at the same rate.

Targeting nutrient-dense foods is essential for older adults, and avoiding high-calorie foods that lack vital nutrients is imperative.

Beneficial foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, and low-fat dairy. Portion control may also be necessary. It can be challenging to cook for a smaller family, so experts sometimes suggest cooking ahead and freezing portions to eat later when cooking is less appealing.

“This study suggests that a diet high in protein and low in calories can give seniors the health benefits of weight loss while keeping the muscle and bone they need for a better quality of life as they age.” – Lead investigator, Kristen Beavers

 The particulars of this study seem to mirror the nutritional needs of older adults. However, the authors of the latest study from Wake Forest suggest that the addition of more protein may be the key to avoiding some of the unhealthful pitfalls that can take place when an older adult loses weight.