DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Do you need to eat more protein to protect your bones?

NHS guidelines say women of all ages should eat around 45g of protein a day and men 55g (stock image)

Your bones aren’t something you really think about until you suffer some misfortune, like a fracture.

Although the most commonly broken bone in the UK is the collarbone, the most problematic bone to break is probably the hip.

I know many elderly people (including my mother) who have suffered hip fractures, which are painful, debilitating and can have devastating consequences.

In the UK at least 76,000 people break their hip each year and a third of them die in the following 12 months as a result of complications such as infection or heart failure.

Even if you don’t break a hip, the thinning of bones (or osteoporosis), which mostly affects women, but also men, with age can lead to frailty and a lack of independence.

So it really is worth trying to protect your bones at all costs. A good way to do this is not only to be active and maintain your body’s stores of vitamin D and calcium, but also to make sure you eat enough good quality protein.

The importance of diet for bone health was recently highlighted by two major studies, which showed that vegetarians and vegans have a much higher risk of breaking their hips.

NHS guidelines say women of all ages should eat around 45g of protein a day and men 55g (stock image)

In the most recent study, researchers from the University of Leeds analyzed data from more than 26,000 British women over 20 years. They found that women on a vegetarian diet were a third more likely to suffer hip fractures than those who regularly ate meat or fish.

Why might this be? For healthy bones you need not only vitamin D and calcium (good sources include dairy products, sardines and green leafy vegetables), but also protein.

By packing your diet with the right kinds of foods, you can get plenty of protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet, but people who avoid meat and fish tend to have lower intakes.

However, even if you eat meat, you may not be getting enough protein, especially if you are 60 or older. As we age, our bodies are not as good at absorbing or making use of protein. A lack of protein leads to fractures, as well as weaker muscles and a less effective immune system.

NHS guidelines say women of all ages should eat around 45g of protein a day and men 55g.

To achieve this, you can have porridge with milk for breakfast (14g of protein) and some fish with green vegetables for lunch (34g more), plus a handful of nuts.

By packing your diet with the right kinds of foods, you can get plenty of protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet, but people who avoid meat and fish tend to have lower intakes (stock image)

By packing your diet with the right kinds of foods, you can get plenty of protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet, but people who avoid meat and fish tend to have lower intakes (stock image)

But some experts say these recommended protein levels are too low. If you follow the NHS guidelines and also stick to their recommended daily calorie intake (2,000 calories a day for women, 2,500 for men), then 9 percent of your diet will be protein. By contrast, a Mediterranean diet, rich in oily fish and nuts, contains around 18 per cent protein, almost double the level recommended in the UK.

Several studies have shown that eating more protein, especially if you have osteoporosis, leads to better bone health, a slower rate of bone loss, and a reduced risk of hip fracture, as long as you also get enough calcium in your diet. Eating plenty of protein is also vital if you want to avoid frailty and age-related muscle loss, because protein provides amino acids, the building blocks of muscle.

In the Framingham Offspring Study, which followed more than 2,900 middle-aged people for an average of 23 years, researchers found that women who ate at least 90 g of protein a day had better results on measures of frailty compared with women who ate 60 g. of protein per day, or less.

Someone who weighs 80kg (12.6lbs, like me) should aim for 80g and 120g of protein per day, well above the recommended levels.

THE BEST SOURCES

Obviously, meat is a particularly good source: it provides 33g of protein per small 100g portion.

Fish provides 21 g per 100 g frozen or canned is just as good as fresh. Greek yogurt, because it is strained and therefore concentrated, typically contains about twice as much protein as other yogurts, with a 200g serving providing 17g.

Eggs (scrambled, boiled or fried) are a good breakfast and each egg provides around 7g of protein.

Not only are lentils delicious and filling, half a cup of cooked lentils (80g) provides 10g of protein.

Nuts are my favorite snack. A small handful (about nine almonds) contains plenty of fiber and a couple of grams of protein as well.

And for an excellent meat substitute in stir-fries or stews, try tofu. It’s made from soy and is not only easy to cook, but provides 18g of protein per 150g serving, as well as plenty of calcium.

Finally, there’s tempeh, which is mostly found in Asian grocery stores and is made from fermented soybeans. Tempeh can be baked or fried. And an 80g serving provides 15g of protein.

Banana peels are usually thrown away, which is a shame because they are rich in fiber and nutrients like magnesium and potassium that help lower blood pressure. Of course, not many of us would like to eat raw banana peels, but you can try cooking the peels and adding them to a curry or stir-fry, or crackers. In a recent study by Aligarh Muslim University in India, banana peels were baked, ground into a powder, and partially replaced flour in cookies.

The skin not only improved the flavor, but also made these treats a little healthier.

Timing your meals right could add years to your life

Ten years ago I made a documentary called Eat, Fast, Live Longer, where I explored the science behind different forms of calorie restriction, also known as intermittent fasting.

I went on what I called a 5:2 diet (reducing my calorie intake to about 600 for two days a week and then eating normally for five days).

Most of you will know the rest: I lost 9kg and a few inches off my waist and, having previously been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, got my blood sugar levels back to normal. I wrote a book about it, The Fast Diet, which I’m proud to say became an international bestseller.

A decade later, I am still diabetes free. Meanwhile, intermittent fasting has become very popular, with a lot of interest now in one form, which I also explored in 2012, called time-restricted eating (TRE): instead of cutting calories, you reduce the hours you eat food.

Studies have shown that both forms of intermittent fasting help with weight loss, but also reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease.

More recently, there is evidence that doing a combination of caloric restriction and TRE can extend lifespan, at least in mice. In one study, published in the journal Science, mice were put on different forms of intermittent fasting regimens: some involved calorie restriction, but they also followed a 12:12 feeding schedule.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that caloric restriction alone extended the animals’ healthy lives by 10%, but if they were also put on a 12:12 TRE regimen, that it extended their lives by 35%, adding an extra nine months to their usual two years of life.

Normally with age, genes related to chronic inflammation (a major cause of heart disease, dementia and cancer) become more active, but tests showed that intermittent fasting helped offset these genetic changes.

The researchers hope that this work will lead to drugs that can mimic the effects of intermittent fasting and extend the lifespan of humans.

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