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Understanding Protein Needs Through Different Life Stages

April 12th, 2024 | 6 min. read

Understanding Protein Needs Through Different Life Stages
Jesse Mendel

Jesse Mendel

Motion Specialist // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

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Protein is a crucial component of every cell in the body, playing a vital role in various bodily functions, including cell repair, muscle growth, and immune system support. However, the amount of protein one needs can change significantly as they age due to various factors. Understanding these changes and adjusting your diet accordingly can help maintain health, strength, and vitality throughout your life. This guide will explore how protein needs evolve with age, factors influencing these needs, and resources to help you determine the right amount of protein for you. 


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The roles of protein in the body

Before delving into how protein needs change, it's essential to understand the critical roles protein plays in our bodies. Proteins are not just dietary components structured with amino acids; they are the fundamental building blocks of life. Every cell in the human body contains protein, and its functions extend far beyond muscle building. Understanding the multifaceted roles of protein can underscore the importance of maintaining adequate intake throughout your life.


Tissue repair and muscle growth

One of the most well-known roles of protein is its involvement in tissue repair and muscle growth. Proteins act as the primary component of muscle tissue, facilitating repair and growth processes, especially after exercise or any physical activity. This is not limited to muscles; proteins are vital for the healing and repair of all body tissues, including skin, hair, and internal organs.


Enzymatic and hormonal functions

Proteins are critical in the synthesis of enzymes and hormones within the body. Enzymes, which are proteins themselves, catalyze nearly all the chemical reactions occurring within the body, from digestion to DNA replication. Hormones, many of which are protein-based, serve as chemical messengers and play key roles in regulating bodily functions like metabolism, growth, and mood.


Immune system support

Proteins form an essential part of the immune system. Antibodies, which are specific types of proteins, help identify and neutralize foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. A lack of adequate protein can weaken the immune response, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses.


Transportation and storage

Proteins play crucial roles in the transportation and storage of molecules. Hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and returns carbon dioxide from the body to the lungs. Other proteins bind and carry atoms and small molecules within cells and throughout the body.


Structural support

Structural proteins, such as collagen and elastin, provide support and shape to cells and tissues. Collagen, which is the most abundant protein in the body, strengthens bones, skin, and connective tissues. Elastin allows tissues to return to their original shape after stretching or contracting.


Providing energy

While proteins are not the primary energy source compared to carbohydrates and fats, they can be broken down to provide energy when needed, especially during prolonged periods without food or in cases of inadequate carbohydrate intake. This highlights the importance of protein in energy balance and metabolism.


Why protein is crucially important

The diverse roles of protein in the body underscore its importance to overall health. Without adequate protein, the body cannot properly repair damaged tissues, fight off infections, or carry out the myriad of biochemical reactions that occur every second within cells.


Furthermore, proteins play a critical role in weight management and metabolic health. High-protein diets are associated with greater satiety, which can help reduce overall calorie intake. Additionally, protein has a higher thermic effect compared to fats and carbohydrates, meaning it burns more calories during digestion, contributing to weight management efforts.


Given protein's extensive roles in virtually every bodily function, maintaining adequate protein intake is essential for health and well-being. This is why dietary recommendations emphasize protein as a key nutrient and why individuals need to consider their protein needs throughout different stages of life.


Protein needs across different ages


Children and adolescents

In childhood and adolescence, protein is vital for growth and development. During these years, the body requires more protein to support the rapid growth of muscles, bones, and other tissues. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein increases with age during these stages.



As growth slows down, so does the requirement for protein, relatively speaking. However, protein remains crucial for maintaining muscle mass, supporting metabolic processes, and facilitating proper immune function. For most adults, maintaining a consistent intake of protein is essential to prevent muscle loss, especially as they approach middle age.


Older adults

As individuals enter their senior years, protein needs can increase again. This is due to factors like decreased muscle mass, slower recovery from illnesses, and overall changes in body composition. Adequate protein intake in older adults is crucial for maintaining muscle strength, mobility, and overall health, thus preventing sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss).


Factors influencing protein needs

Several factors can influence an individual's protein requirements at any age:


  1. Activity level: More active individuals, particularly those engaged in regular strength training or endurance sports, may require more protein to repair and build muscle tissue than sedentary individuals.
  2. Health status: Certain health conditions, such as chronic illnesses or recovery from surgery, can increase protein requirements as the body works to repair and recover.
  3. Dietary choices: The quality of protein sources can impact how much is needed. Complete proteins, containing all essential amino acids, are typically more beneficial for the body.


How to determine your protein needs

Determining your exact protein needs can be challenging, as they vary significantly from person to person. Here are some resources and methods to help you estimate your individual requirements:


  1. Dietary guidelines: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide a broad recommendation for daily protein intake based on age and sex. These guidelines are a good starting point for understanding your baseline needs.
  2. Nutrition calculators: Online calculators can provide a more personalized estimate of your protein needs based on factors like age, weight, height, and activity level.
  3. Registered dietitians: For the most personalized advice, consult with a registered dietitian. They can assess your dietary habits, lifestyle, and health status to recommend an appropriate protein intake level.


Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a critical role in maintaining health and function throughout life. Understanding how your protein needs change as you age is vital for maintaining muscle mass, supporting metabolic health, and ensuring overall well-being. By considering factors such as activity level, health status, and dietary choices, and by utilizing available resources, you can better estimate your personal protein requirements and adjust your diet accordingly.


Remember, while protein is essential, balance is key. A healthy diet should also include adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Always aim for a varied and balanced diet to support all aspects of your health.


As you navigate through different stages of life, keep in mind that your protein needs will change. Stay informed, listen to your body, and adapt your diet to meet your evolving nutritional needs. By doing so, you can maintain your strength, health, and vitality, allowing you to enjoy your favorite activities pain-free for years to come. Our physical therapists and nutrition specialists at EW Motion Therapy can work together to help you meet your dietary needs and ensure you can pursue your favorite activities. If you want to learn more about how physical therapy can help your wellness journey, click the button below to download our answers to 20 frequently asked questions.


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