Did you know that we start to lose muscle mass from the age of 40 - slowly to start with but this accelerates over time at a rate of approximately eight percent per decade? Muscle loss - the silent ageing factor - is one of the most underrated health issues after 40.
This all sounds a little scary, especially as I approach the big 4-0 myself, but the good news is that with the right nutrition and exercise, we can actually slow this process down. Taking care of our muscles early on can keep us strong and healthy for longer.
Muscle loss, commonly associated with frailty, is more than a cosmetic issue. Muscles play a key role in our body's movement, balance and posture, which is why falls and fractures can occur when the body loses too much. While many of us associate muscles with being strong, they're also important for a youthful facial appearance and for keeping us healthier for longer. The key is to get the right nutrients and stay active so we can enjoy the things we love at any age.
Here are my top four nutritional tips for healthy muscles as we age:
1. Include protein in nearly every meal - many of us need more than we think
I recommend a balanced and varied diet packed with enough protein from foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, beans and nuts. These can all help rebuild muscle. Protein is intrinsic to muscle health because it's essentially the building block of our muscles and tissues. As we age, we actually need to eat more protein than when we're younger. Also, the heavier we are, the more protein we need to eat. So how much protein do adults actually need?
A 63.5kg (10 st) healthy 40-year old adult will need roughly 50 grams every day - that's the equivalent of a small chicken breast or a tin of tuna, a yoghurt, an egg and 150ml of milk. International expert groups recommend older adults need even more protein than this. That's because as well as losing muscle, our natural ability to build muscle also declines as we get older. Alongside resistance exercise, eating enough protein can actually help overcome this decline.
2. Top up your levels of 'sunshine' vitamin D - easier said than done in this country
Other than protein, making sure our body has enough vitamin D is critical. Vitamin D plays an important role in the maintenance of normal muscle function. People with low vitamin D levels can experience muscle weakness. A lot of us may actually have low vitamin D levels at this time of year due to low sun exposure to the bare skin, unless you're lucky enough to be jetting off somewhere tropical.
To counter this, I recommend opting for oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, eggs and fortified breakfast cereal to up your intake.
3. Look out for novel ingredients - we're making discoveries all the time
There are a few supplements of interest when thinking about muscle mass, including HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate). HMB has traditionally been used by athletes to enhance performance and build muscle. However, there is emerging evidence that it may also help slow down muscle loss.
HMB is made by our bodies from the amino acid leucine, found in high protein foods (one more reason to stock up on protein) and is also found in small amounts in avocado and citrus fruit like grapefruit.
4. When you're unwell, give your body additional nutrition to help it recover quicker
Our body burns through muscle when we're sick and we can lose muscle up to three times faster with illness or injury. Did you know that a 10-day period of bed rest can lead to 1kg of muscle loss from the lower limbs? So it's important that we fill our plate with nutrient dense, high protein foods to boost our recovery.
People with chronic conditions like COPD and cardiovascular disease, who are at risk of malnutrition, may need to take a nutrient dense, oral nutritional supplement under the supervision of their healthcare professional.
Feeling stronger, rebounding from illness faster and leading a more active life for longer are all good reasons why eating more protein and looking after our muscle health is key to staying well and living a full life post the big 4-0.