A loss of muscle mass often accompanies advancing age. It’s just a fact of life among older adults unless they are avid exercisers. One way older people can maintain more muscle mass as they age, a new study suggests, is to eat more protein earlier in the day.

Eating enough protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass, but the body needs regular “reminders”, or stimulation, to produce new muscle tissue, and those reminders come when protein is eaten. Older people have less efficient cellular reminders. They need to eat more protein to get the same response to the reminders as younger people.

Seniors may need to increase their per-meal intake of protein to remind their bodies to make muscle throughout the day.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England studied the diets of 120 young, middle-aged and older individuals, focusing on their protein intake. The participants recorded what and when they ate in a three-day food diary, weighing every food item they consumed.

Most people met or exceeded the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein intake, but their intake and distribution varied widely throughout the day. This uneven intake of protein is likely to be insufficient to remind the body to produce muscle tissue in older adults. It may not be enough for those in middle-age.

Animal-based proteins were most commonly consumed at dinner by all people in the study.

Among young and middle-aged people, 72 percent of the meals highest in protein were eaten at dinner compared to 76 percent in older people. At lunch, young and middle-aged people were more likely to eat poultry, fish and red meat, while older people ate plant-based proteins, like bread.

“Most people are reaching the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein, but our results show that a one-size-fits-all guideline for protein intake isn't appropriate across all age groups. Simply saying older people should eat more protein isn't really enough either. We need a more sophisticated and individualized approach that can help people understand when and how much protein to consume to support muscle mass,” explained researcher, Benoit Smeuninx of the University of Birmingham, in a statement.

Seniors may need to increase their per-meal intake of protein to remind their bodies to make muscle throughout the day. Nutrition guidelines might be revised to this effect to help older people adopt eating habits that include the intake of good quality proteins at all meals throughout the day.

To help the body’s reminder system make more muscle tissue and decrease the loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging, older adults should increase their protein intake at breakfast and lunch. Regular exercise can also help muscles make better use of dietary protein.

The study is published in Frontiers in Nutrition.