By Prof. Dr. Salil Bendre, Head, Pulmonary Medicine, Nanavati Max SuperSpeciality Hospital
While many adults around the world are living longer, they are not necessarily living healthier. This results in them being unable to live their fuller lives. There are multiple factors that contribute to this lower than optimal health chart. One of the key and most obvious factors is nutrition or the lack of it. After all, it's food that fuels every cell in the body and supports muscular strength.
One would think that optimizing your diet to maximize your health isn’t too difficult. Ensure you eat balanced meals – have a colourful plate featuring all the essential food groups. But the surprising fact is that malnutrition in adults has recently come into focus as an often-hidden health condition experienced by many adults.
Understanding adult malnutrition and its effect on muscle strength
A common misconception is that malnutrition means a person isn't getting enough calories. But malnutrition can be more than a deficiency in nutrient intake: it can also refer to nutrient excesses or vitamin or mineral imbalances.
“Today, a lot of people in India come under the category of being ‘skinny fat’ – a term that refers to having a relatively high percentage of body fat and a low amount of muscle mass. It occurs when the body doesn’t get the appropriate amounts of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that it needs, to function,” says Prof. Dr. Salil Bendre, Head, Pulmonary Medicine, Nanavati Max SuperSpeciality Hospital.
As we age, muscle mass plays an increasingly important role in not just body mobility and strength but also supporting our overall immunity shield. Studies have however shown that starting at age 40, adults can lose up to 8 percent of their muscle mass per decade. After 70 years old, that rate may double. [i][ii] This shines the spotlight stronger on why muscle matters & the need to prioritize nutrition early on.
How to avoid muscle loss & protect muscle health
Safeguarding muscle mass can be done with a few simple strategies – mainly focusing on physical activity and proper nutrition. This is especially important as we age.
To preserve muscles:
Engage in regular exercise & test your muscle age: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week and include resistance training to also help maintain muscles and strength. You can test your locomotive ability and find out how good your muscle strength is & know what to do earlier to help prevent and delay muscle loss & overall strength. The good news is that grip strength is an easy way to assess your overall muscular strength - just by squeezing an orange or noticing the firmness of your handshake you can determine your muscle strength. A chair challenge test is also an easy way to test your muscle strength. The time taken to do 5 sit ups on a chair of approx. height of 43cm [1.4ft] in height can tell you about your muscle age.
Consume enough micronutrients: Not only reduced intake of proteins but also micronutrients like selenium, carotenoid, vitamin C, E, calcium, vitamin D etc have been associated with lower muscle strength[iii]. Currently, 1 in 3 adults over the age of 50 don't get enough protein in their diet[iv], that is problematic because protein is a nutrient that supports strong muscles and helps keep cells healthy, fuelled and working at their best, which is important to keeping energy levels up. To amp up protein intake further, add in protein snacks, like one before bed or supplement your diet with nutrition supplements, if needed.
Follow a nutrition-forward diet: Choose a balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, healthy fats and key vitamins and minerals like calcium and Vitamin D. The key is to choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across all food groups. Developing healthy eating patterns not only give you energy, they can also help prevent obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes[v].
Tackling the issue of malnutrition & muscle loss in adults requires prioritizing good nutrition. Being mindful of overall health can help adults and incorporating balanced nutrition right from early stages of life helps us live actively and independently as we age.