FAQ's on Protein Sources for Aging Well

Changing your personal food culture is not about perfection. What you’re going for is a baseline of healthy food habits geared toward aging well. What does that look like? Not too much food; not eating too late or too early, so that your body gets a good long rest from digesting every day; fresh, real foods as close as possible to their natural form; very few grains and refined carbs; more plants than animals. We don’t want to say you should go strictly paleo or keto. Better to look more holistically at your habits—shift your food mind-set, and adjust how you think about food as a part of your life. That said, we want to acknowledge the inherent challenges in the advice we’re giving. Here are some answers that might help.

Are all animal products a problem, or just meat?

Based on current longevity research, all animal protein is problematic as you age—meat (beef, pork, poultry) and dairy are the worst. So you want to limit your consumption of cheese and yogurt, as well as meat. And when you do eat animal protein, make sure it’s from a high-quality source. Fish is less problematic than meat and dairy. (Also, if dairy gives you digestive trouble, skip it completely.)

What about eggs? They’re animal protein.

Yes, but they’re full of so many great nutrients that they fall into their own category. This is one of those tricky contradictions. For protein, the order from good to problematic is plant protein (unprocessed nuts, seeds, and beans), then fish, then eggs, then dairy, then meat.

Is chicken healthier than beef ?

It’s really about the source. Grass-fed beef is better for you than antibiotic-laden corn-fed chicken. Get the best-quality meat you can afford, no matter the type.

How many times a week is it okay to have meat or dairy?

Try to limit yourself to five to seven servings a week of meat or dairy, and not more than one serving a day. It’s challenging, but it’s something to shoot for. You’ll find yourself eating a lot more vegetables, which is great.

What about fish and the issue of mercury?

No question, this is an issue. The bigger the fish, the bigger the mercury problem. Tuna, swordfish, tilefish, shark, and king mackerel are among the worst options regarding mercury; limit consumption of these “big fish” to once a week. Smaller fish—trout, flounder, fluke, catfish, sardines, anchovies, scallops, local shrimp—are much less of a problem. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is also a great choice. Canned light tuna is lower in mercury than canned albacore. Shopping online for good fish brands like Safe Catch and Vital Choice can help minimize your exposure to mercury. You can also get your blood level for mercury checked by your doctor. But it’s not just mercury you need to be concerned about—now there are microplastics being found in fish. The oceans are polluted, so you really need to be judicious in your fish consumption.

Is fermented soy better than other forms of soy? How much soy is okay?

Yes, tempeh, which is fermented, is a better choice than tofu. And edamame, which is unprocessed, is the best choice of all for soy. It’s very important to buy organic when it comes to soy products—most soy on the market is genetically modified(GMO). One or two portions a week is fine, if it doesn’t upset your stomach. But you don’t want to eat too much soy, no matter what. Why? Soy has high levels of phytic acid, which can affect your body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients (magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, and others). It can also interfere with protein digestion and endocrine function. Too much soy may be a factor in hypothyroidism or other conditions. So don’t overdo it.

I thought processed protein wasn’t great, but you’re recommending it in some cases.

We need to be realistic. The twin goals of cutting down on animal products and getting enough protein might mean that some of your sources are processed. Organic powdered hemp protein and pea protein are good options, as is collagen powder—add them to a shake. Good brands are Vital Proteins, Designs for Health, and Thorne. But eat whole foods whenever possible.

Can I have as much plant protein as I want?

Sure, but eating less overall is a key factor in aging well. So don’t go crazy consuming massive amounts of beans and nuts. Processing too much food is hard on the body. How do I stick with great food habits when I’m at a friend’s place for dinner? Social eating and time around the table with loved ones is important—there’s nourishment in being with people you care about, laughing, talking, and eating. If you can contribute to what’s on the table, bring a dish full of greens or veggies, and favor that when you fill your plate. If not, just do your best; eat less of the starchy stuff and more of the greens, and don’t get too hung up on it.

Of course, food—even at home—is about much more than nutrients. It’s about social connection, love, comfort. It can be what we reflexively turn to when we’re bored or lonely. One of the difficulties in relating to food as you age is that you simply need less of it. And if you live a life or come from a family where food is really central, you may have to make a concerted effort to change. Shaping your day around other (non-meal) activities—new habits, new rewards—can be a challenge, but it will pay off. We invite you to give it some thought: How might you need to adjust your relationship with food to take the best possible care of yourself as you age? It’s a personal question, and you’ll figure out the right answers for you.

This is an excerpt taken from my book, The New Rules of Aging Well – Artisan, October 2020.

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