Science-backed Nutrition for Every Stage of Life

The Role of Protein in the Body, Other Nutrients at Different Ages

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Important nutrients for each and every chapter of your life. 

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MAR. 06, 2019   6 MIN. READ  

Just as your body changes with each stage of life, your nutrition needs change too. Consider the role of protein in the body. In infancy, it's a critical part of growth and development; while in adulthood, protein may help you maintain a healthy BMI or body mass index. And as you age, it can help you support the lean muscle you need to stay active.

The same holds true for other nutrients like vitamins, minerals and certain fats. Researchers at Abbott have been studying the role nutrition plays from early infancy to late adulthood to help people better nourish every stage of life. If you're wondering which nutrients you need now — and in the future — these experts share the latest insights from nutrition science.

Pregnant Women

A woman's diet during pregnancy plays a pivotal role in both the mother's and baby's health.

  • Iron is instrumental in building the red blood cells required to deliver oxygen to a growing baby. Aim for recommended 27 daily milligrams a day and use a prenatal vitamin as directed by a physician.

    Found in:
     dark leafy greens, lean meats, nuts, tofu and white beans

  • Folate is a B vitamin critical for healthy cell growth and preventing spinal cord abnormalities, known as neural tube defects. The key is to get enough folate before you conceive and throughout pregnancy.

    Found in:
     vegetables, including asparagus, Brussels sprouts, and spinach

  • DHA — a unique omega-3 fat — is known to support optimal cell function and cognition, or brain health.

    Found in:
     Foods including salmon, tuna, eggs, nuts and DHA-fortified products.

"Nutrition during pregnancy is critical. In utero, a growing baby will develop 100 to 200 billion brain cells," says Matthew Kuchan, Ph.D., a discovery scientist with Abbott.

Infancy and Childhood

healthy gut is the foundation for a healthy immune system so it's critical that a baby gets the building blocks from the start.

"Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut where 70 percent of a baby's immune system is found," explains Rachael Buck, Ph.D., an Abbott scientist and expert in immune health.

  •  Vitamin E, DHA and lutein are nutrients that work together to benefit baby's developing brain and eyes

    Found in: a
    im to get natural vitamin E from vegetable oils, egg yolks, nut butters and spinach — it may be more effective than synthetic vitamin E supplements[1]Lutein can be found in eggs, and many bright-colored vegetables and dark leafy greens.

  • Protein is a frequently-discussed nutrient, and its value for children shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, one in seven school-aged children may not get the protein they require to support their rapidly growing bodies and developing immune systems[2].

    Found in: 
    cheese, eggs, lean meats, peanut butter, yogurt and PediaSure® drinks

"In the first year of life, a baby's brain is developing quickly, making hundreds of thousands of neural connections every day— faster than any other time in life," says Kuchan. "Getting critical nutrients is important for supporting this rapid window of physical growth and development."

Healthy Adults

Whether you're running your first marathon or simply trying to maintain a healthy BMI, the right nutrients can make a world of difference.

"Because we may begin to naturally lose muscle after we turn 40 — as much as 8 percent of overall muscle mass every decade — getting enough protein every day is even more important as we age," explains Jacqueline Boff, Ph.D., M.B.A., a research scientist at Abbott.

  • Protein is essential at every age, whether you're trying to build muscle, maintain strength or recover from surgery. Aim to eat 25 to 30 grams of protein at every meal to support muscles and help satisfy hunger.

    Found in: meats, beans, dairy products, fish, nuts, seeds, tofu and nutrition drinks like Ensure® Max.
  • Fiber is typically regarded as support for digestive health, but roughage does more than simply give your gut a workout. Fiber-rich foods can help with lowering cholesterol and managing body weight simply by keeping you full. According to reviews in The Lancet eating the recommended levels of fiber may also help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

    Found in:
     fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains

Aging Adults

According to a review paper in Age and Ageing, one in three adults over age 50 experiences advanced muscle and strength loss, or sarcopenia, which can increase the risk of falls and fractures, hospitalization, and lead to slower recovery from illness or surgery.

For aging adults, an even higher protein intake is recommended to support muscle and strength needs.

  • HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) is a substance that supports muscle health and our bodies make it when we eat protein-containing foods. But as we get older our body makes less HMB.

    Found in:
     HMB is hard to get from food alone, but is available from other supplement sources, including some nutrition drinks.
  • Calcium, a remarkable 99 percent of this mineral, is found in our teeth and bones, and it plays a crucial role in keeping them strong. As we age, our bones lose some of that calcium, as well as some of their mass, heightening the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. That's why calcium requirements jump from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams a day for women over 50 and men over 70.

    Found in:
     Milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Vitamin D is important for sturdy bones, but did you know that it also supports immune health? And, unlike other nutrients, vitamin D is the only one that we can synthesize when our skin is exposed to sunlight. However, as we age, we become less efficient at this process, making diet or supplements more important than ever for getting sufficient vitamin D.

    Found in: e
    ggs, fatty fish, oysters and shrimp and vitamin D fortified dairy products

You've always known good nutrition is important. And now you can aim to get the nutrients you want and need in your diet at each important life stage.

1. Patrick Borel, Damien Preveraud, and Charles Desmarchelier. Bioavailability of vitamin E in humans: an update. Nutrition Reviews 2013; Vol.71(6):319–33.
2. Data on file. December 2018. Abbott Nutrition. NHANES data analysis. School-aged children defined as 6-13 years.

Debunking Protein Myths for Better Nutrition

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A wooden cutting board topped with protein-rich foods including eggs, salmon, meat and chicken.


Key Takeaways

• Protein is an essential nutrient needed for nearly every function in the body.
• Your protein needs may increase with age, activity level and illness, and during weight loss.
• Eating high-quality protein at meals and snacks can help make sure you get the recommended amount.

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Is a High-Protein Diet Good for Weight Loss?

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Person holds their phone up as they exercise outdoors


Key Takeaways

• Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet.
• Getting adequate protein can help with muscle loss associated with intentional weight loss.
• High-quality, high-protein foods can help you meet your protein needs.

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