The recommended dietary allowance for protein may not be adequate for older people to maintain skeletal muscle

J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2001 Jun;56(6):M373-80. doi: 10.1093/gerona/56.6.m373.


Background: Inadequate dietary protein intake results in loss of skeletal muscle mass. Some shorter-term nitrogen balance studies suggest that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein may not be adequate for older people. The aim of this study was to assess the adequacy of the RDA of protein for older people by examining longer-term responses in urinary nitrogen excretion, whole-body protein metabolism, whole-body composition, and mid-thigh muscle area.

Methods: This was a 14-week precisely controlled diet study. Ten healthy, ambulatory men and women, aged 55 to 77 years, were provided eucaloric diets that contained 0.8 g The study was conducted at a General Clinical Research Center using an outpatient setting for 11 weeks and an inpatient setting for 3 weeks. The main outcome measures included urinary nitrogen excretion, postabsorptive and postprandial whole-body leucine kinetics via infusion of L-[1-(13)C]-leucine, whole-body density via hydrostatic weighing, total body water via deuterium oxide dilution, and mid-thigh muscle area via computed tomography scans.

Results: Mean urinary nitrogen excretion decreased over time from Weeks 2 to 8 to 14 (p =.025). At Week 14, compared with Week 2, there were no changes in postabsorptive or postprandial leucine kinetics (turnover, oxidation, incorporation into protein via synthesis, release via breakdown, or balance). Whole-body composition (% body fat, fat-free mass, and protein + mineral mass) did not change over time in these weight-stable subjects. Mid-thigh muscle area was decreased by -1.7 +/- 0.6 cm(2) (p =.019) at Week 14 compared with Week 2. The loss of mid-thigh muscle area was associated with the decrease in urinary nitrogen excretion (Spearman r =.83, p =.010).

Conclusions: The maintenance of whole-body leucine metabolism and whole-body composition is generally consistent with a successful adaptation to the RDA for protein. However, the decrease in mid-thigh muscle area and the association with decreased urinary nitrogen excretion are consistent with a metabolic accommodation. These results suggest that the RDA for protein may not be adequate to completely meet the metabolic and physiological needs of virtually all older people.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Body Composition
  • Dietary Proteins / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leucine / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / anatomy & histology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Nitrogen / urine
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Thigh


  • Dietary Proteins
  • Leucine
  • Nitrogen