New research shows a high-protein, low-calorie diet is both a safe and effective way for those over 65 to lose weight.

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Eating more protein can make dieters feel full longer and promote weight loss. Getty Images

The older we get, the more complicated weight loss can be.

Not only is dropping pounds a priority, but building muscle and maintaining bone quality to stay strong are also a concern.

“In general, people start losing bone (and muscle) mass around the fourth decade of life, while fat mass continues to accumulate until roughly the seventh decade of life,” Kristen M. Beavers, PhD, assistant professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University, told Healthline.

She said that a sizable portion of older adults struggle with maintaining bone density and losing weight.

Because of this, Beavers researched the best way for older adults to safely lose weight, and she believes she has the answer.

Beavers and colleagues conducted a study of about 100 adults over 65 years old, who were randomly assigned to two groups.

In one group, participants partook in a six-month low-calorie meal plan that included more than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, as well as adequate calcium and vitamin D.

In the control group, participants targeted .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is currently recommended by the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies.

Since Beavers says many older adults are unlikely to exercise enough to preserve muscle and bone, exercise was not part of the study.

The study discovered the following:

  • Participants in the first group lost about 18 pounds, with 87 percent of those pounds being fat. They also preserved muscle mass. Those in the control group lost about half a pound.
  • Although participants lost weight, they also maintained bone mass and their fracture risk improved based on their trabecular bone score.
  • Participants lost fat in their stomach, hips, thighs, and buttock, which can help prevent and control cardiometabolic diseases, such as diabetes and stroke.
  • Participants improved their scores by .75 points on the Healthy Aging Index, which measures biomarkers that predict mortality and longevity.

“Data from this study suggest that practitioners working with older adults with obesity can recommend a hypocaloric, nutritionally complete, higher-protein meal plan and anticipate that their patients will experience significant weight loss, accompanied by a favorable shift in body composition, preservation of physical function, and improvement in several biomarkers of mortality,” Beavers said.

Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, agreed with Beavers findings.

“This is a reasonable approach for any person who wants to lose weight and preferentially lose fat. A high-protein, low-calorie approach is particularly effective in the aging population where preserving muscle mass is crucial to overall health,” Kumar told Healthline.

However, she said improving bone density may not be realistic, yet preserving it is an attainable goal.

“Weight loss typically leads to less loading force on the bone, [which] can lead to loss of bone density. Doing weight-bearing exercising while dieting can help maintain bone density, but it would be unusual to ‘improve’ or ‘increase’ bone mineral density while losing weight,” Kumar said.

Beavers admits it may be difficult for older adults with obesity to consume adequate protein while losing weight. However, she says intentional planning can make it possible.

“Their absolute protein needs (in grams/kilogram/day) are already elevated because of their starting body weight, but then you are asking them to restrict their calories to promote weight loss,” Beavers said.

“The higher-protein meal plan we used [in our study] helped our participants achieve nearly 1 gram (g) of protein/kg body weight/day through the use of four meal replacement products per day (~15 g of protein/each), in addition to recipes for higher-protein prepared meals throughout the day.”

Kumar says to think in terms of reducing carbohydrates, especially processed carbohydrates, and make an effort to add more lean protein, such as fish, chicken, egg whites, and yogurt, into each meal.

“This will allow people to overall consume less calories while maintaining adequate protein intake,” she said.

To think of it scientifically, Beavers added that protein provides amino acids needed for the synthesis of muscle protein.

She says the International Clinical Practice Guidelines for Sarcopenia recommends that older adults with sarcopenia (loss of muscle tissue), consider a protein-rich diet or protein supplementation.

“From a weight loss standpoint, protein is a very satiating macronutrient, and can promote weight loss by reducing ad libitum food consumption,” said Beavers.

If you don’t know where to start with meal planning, ask your doctor for guidance or if they can recommend a dietitian.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.