Proteins May Be The Reason You’re Losing Bone and Muscle Mass

frank shallenberger md

If you’re over 50, what is the most critical aspect of your health that is routinely overlooked by virtually every doctor? If you go to your doctor and ask for a preventive medicine workup, it’s likely that your doctor will overlook one of the most important tests you can have done. He’ll check for cancer, heart disease, hormone levels (maybe), and a battery of other tests. But he’s almost sure to forget this one crucial test.

What is this test? It’s a test for your amino acid levels. Why is it important? Because doctors assume that everyone who has even a half-way healthy diet will have healthy amino acid levels. That’s what the medical schools teach them. But it turns out that this assumption is often perilously wrong – especially if you’re ill. In fact, it could explain why you’re not getting well, losing bone and muscle mass, and aging at an accelerated rate. It’s all about proteins. So let me explain the marvelous connection between proteins and amino acids, and why it is so important.

Getting enough protein in your diet is one of the most critical things you can do to stay strong and functional as you get older. Everyone knows that. But what’s the best way to do that? I get this question all the time. And I thought I knew the answer. But recently I found out I knew only half the story. There is more to protein than just eating enough.

Proteins are amazing. They make up every single messenger in your body. Your hormones, your immune system regulators, your enzymes, even your brain chemicals – yep, all proteins. They are also what form the substance of the body, including your skin, muscles, hair, bones, and the connective tissue that holds all of your organs together. Without enough of the right kinds of proteins, your body will not be able to regulate itself and will become weak, frail, and diseased. In short, you will age faster.

Decreased body protein causes immune impairment, decreased organ function, muscle wasting, connective tissue loss, bone loss, brain and nervous system disorders, delayed healing, decreased cardiovascular fitness, lowered hormone levels, decreased detoxification, and reduced energy production. That is an impressive list. And here’s the problem for us.

We are losing our proteins! How bad is it? The best way to measure protein status is to measure your lean body mass. The lean body mass is the total weight of your muscles and your bones. That’s where the majority of your proteins are. So lean body mass is a great marker of protein status. And a decrease in lean body mass is one of the most consistent markers of aging. And here’s a sobering statistic. The average person loses 25-30% of their lean body mass by the time they are 60 years old! That’s a very good reason not to be average.

Practically speaking, the majority of the lean body mass that we lose is muscle. So from now on, instead of referring to lean body mass, I’m just going to refer to muscle mass.

There are four reasons why we lose muscle mass. And I will cover them in a minute along with a very exciting way to replace what we’ve lost. But before I do, we need to get back to amino acids.

So where do all of the critical proteins that make up your muscle mass come from? Your diet, right? Wrong. They don’t come from your diet. You make them. In fact, one of the most critical functions of every cell is the synthesis of proteins. Your diet is important, however, because it supplies amino acids. And amino acids are the building blocks your cells use to make the proteins you need. Here’s how it works.

Proteins are molecules that are made up of various amino acids. Think of a train. Each train is different because of all the different cars it has. These cars are lined up in different orders. There are 20 different amino acids in the human body. And all of the proteins that I have been talking about are made from these 20. The thing that makes one protein different from another is that each protein has a different combination of amino acids, and the amino acids are lined up differently. Sounds complicated doesn’t it? But the miracle is that your body knows just how to do it. All it needs are the amino acids.

Of the 20 amino acids your body needs, you have to get only eight in your diet. You can synthesize the other 12. The eight that you cannot synthesize are called the “essential amino acids.” That’s because they are essential to your diet and your health.

Every time you eat protein, your digestive system breaks it down into the various amino acids. So as long as the protein you eat contains enough of the essential aminos, you will be able to make all the various body proteins you need, right? That’s what I always thought because that was what they taught me in medical school. But like with many of the things I learned in medical school there is more to the story.

It turns out that it is not enough to just eat proteins that contain the eight essential aminos. We also have to eat the right balance of these aminos. This idea of a balance of amino acids is a new concept. And most doctors and nutritionists don’t know about it yet. So let me use a simple example to explain.

Let’s say you own a bicycle factory. Each bike you make needs one seat, one handlebar, two pedals, one chain, two wheels, and two tires. And let’s say that one day you get the following delivery: six handlebars, four pedals, six chains, 14 wheels, and three tires. How many bikes can you make with all these supplies?

Well, despite the fact that the delivery had an abundance of bike parts, you can only make one bike. Why? Because there are only three tires, and that’s only enough to make one bike. And after you make that one bike, all the other bike parts are just wasted. You can’t use them because there aren’t enough tires.

In this case the tires are the limiting factor. But the same thing would happen if you received only three wheels, or if you received only one handlebar. In order for you to make bikes, you not only need to have the right parts, you also need to have the parts in the proper order so they match. And this is the same thing with proteins.

In order to make proteins, the cells not only need to have a good supply of the eight essential amino acids, but they also need to have the right balance. For example, if they get an abundance of seven of the essential aminos, but only a small amount of the eighth one, that will limit what can be made with the other seven. And just like with the extra bike parts, a lot of the seven amino acids that were in abundance will be wasted because there is not enough of the eighth one. So here’s the point.

As long as you get the right balance of aminos in your diet, your body will be able to synthesize proteins efficiently. But if you don’t, two things will happen. First, you will start to lose muscle mass. Second, you’ll waste a lot of the amino acids that you ate. Here’s how.

I’ve told you that your body uses amino acids to produce the proteins that you need to make muscle. But there is something else your body can do with the amino acids you eat. It can convert them to sugar and burn them for energy. And that is exactly what it does to those extra amino acids that you eat that you can’t use to make protein because the balance isn’t right. It converts them to sugar. I call that a waste of aminos. So how can you tell if your body is wasting the aminos you eat because the balance isn’t right?

Amino acids contain nitrogen. When the body converts aminos to sugar, your body disperses the nitrogen in your urine. When the body converts the aminos into proteins, your body retains the nitrogen – it doesn’t end up in the urine. So let’s say you ate the exact perfect balance of aminos to form proteins. In that case, there would be no nitrogen showing up in your urine. But if you ate a very poor balance of aminos, the opposite would happen. A lot of nitrogen would show up in your urine. So now let’s talk about specific dietary proteins and how they stack up. Are some better balanced than others?

Scientists have answered this question by giving people various proteins and measuring how much nitrogen shows up in the urine. They refer to this concept as net nitrogen utilization or NNU. If a dietary protein had an NNU of 100%, that would mean that the aminos in that protein were so perfectly balanced that no nitrogen appeared in the urine. It also means that your body used 100% of the aminos to build body protein. That would be great!

On the other hand, if a protein source had an NNU of 10 that would mean that your body used only 10% of the amino acids to make protein. It would turn 90% of them into sugar. That would not be so good. So how do the various foods stack up on NNU? Wait until you get a load of this.

The best protein source has an NNU of only 49%. What is that? If you guessed mother’s milk you would be right. But that only makes sense. If anyone needs to have an efficient source of protein, it would have to be a developing baby. But it’s hard for most of us to find a steady source of breast milk these days, so what’s the next best thing?

The next best protein is whole eggs. Eggs have an NNU of 48%. But it has to be the whole egg. Egg whites have an NNU of only 17%. That’s because the yolk contains 30% of the essential amino acid methionine. Once you take out the yolk, you change the balance, and dramatically limit the tremendous protein building value of eggs.

What about meats, poultry, and fish? They are all equal with an NNU of 32%. And now it really starts to get bad. You know all that protein powder that is supposed to be so effective at building muscle? It has an NNU of only 17%. That includes protein made from soy, dairy, and eggs. About 83% of the protein in protein powder is wasted.

And finally how about spirolina? Depending on the brand, spirolina has an NNU from zero to 6. Not a good protein source at all.

So let’s go back to the original problem. Why is it that the average person loses 25-30% of their muscle mass as he gets older? I can think of four major factors.

One is obvious from what we have just been looking at. Many people just don’t eat enough protein. According to accepted nutritional guidelines, a person with the basic sedentary lifestyle typical in the U.S. needs about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight just to maintain what they have. If you weigh 150 pounds, you should be taking in about 54 grams or 2 ounces of protein per day. If you weigh 200 pounds, you should be eating 2½ ounces. But are you getting enough?

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that about 8% of older adult women are getting less than this. And men between the ages of 51 to 70 are also not getting enough. And that’s if you are sedentary, which I hope you are not.

I hope you are spending a good 60-120 minutes every week in some vigorous exercise. In that case you will need more like 0.6 grams of protein per pound. But here’s the point I have been leading up to. Even if you are eating this much, you may not be getting enough to maintain your lean body mass because of the different NNUs of the various proteins.

For example, eating 2½ ounces of protein powder will build only 35% as much muscle mass as eating the same amount in eggs. So to get the same amount of muscle increase from protein powder that you would with eggs, you would need to eat three times as much. That could be a lot of protein powder. Similarly, protein powder will give you only 50% as much muscle mass as eating the same amount of meat. So to get the same amount of muscle increase from protein powder that you would with meat, you would need to eat twice as much.

But it’s not enough just to eat an adequate amount of the right kind of protein. We also have to break the protein down into its amino acids and digest it. And in order to do that we need stomach acid. Stomach acid denatures (uncoils) each protein so that the digestive enzymes can work. It also converts the stomach enzyme pepsinogen to pepsin.

It is pepsin that breaks down the protein into its various amino acids. Having enough stomach acid is critical for breaking down the proteins in our diet into the amino acids we need so badly. But one of the problems that happens as we get older is that we make less and less stomach acid. Some experts estimate that something like 30% of people over the age of 60 have a deficiency of stomach acid. For them, even eating a perfect protein will not be enough.

So here’s a quiz. What little gift do we have from Big Pharma that completely shuts down all stomach acid production?

I’ll bet most of you got that one. It’s all those acid blocker pills that so many take for heartburn and reflux. It’s a $24 billion business, so you won’t hear this on the news. But taking these pills on a regular basis is bad, and will lead to protein deficiency and muscle loss.

The other two causes for muscle loss is a lack of hormones and exercise. I have already preached about this many times in past issues. There are two critical things you need to do as you get older. One is to maintain youthful levels of your hormones. And the other is to exercise on a regular basis. And by exercise I don’t mean playing golf or taking a walk. I mean working out to exhaustion. Sound like fun? It isn’t! But it is the central key to staying strong and functional as you get older. You can get the details on my website ( and in my book, Bursting With Energy. Now for the really cool stuff.

If you are older and are just getting into this anti-aging thing, the odds are that you have already lost a substantial amount of muscle mass. There are two ways to tell. One is to have your muscle mass measured. We do this all the time in the clinic. The other way is slightly more direct, but can be upsetting. Look at yourself in the mirror! But here is some great news. There is a fantastic way to replenish your body of its missing proteins. It’s called MAP.

MAP stands for master amino acid pattern. It’s a patented product that combines the perfect balance of the essential amino acids. The NNU for MAP is 98%! Virtually all of the aminos in MAP go into forming lean body mass. That’s amazing. MAP is used mostly by athletes, but there is no reason why it can’t be used just as effectively for us older folks. You can get all the details about MAP as well as buy it at Here’s my plan.

I weigh 172 pounds. And I exercise hard about two hours per week. So I need to make sure that I eat at least four ounces of high NNU protein such as eggs, meat, or poultry per day. This should be enough to maintain what I have. Then in addition I have started taking 10 grams of MAP a day. This means that all 10 grams of the MAP will go to building up my muscle mass. In 100 days, I will put on 1,000 grams of muscle mass. This amounts to 2.2 pounds.

I weigh 175 pounds. My body fat percentage is 14%. That calculates out to about 141 pounds of lean body mass. A youthful lean body mass would be about 149 pounds. So I am eight pounds short. It’s not hard to understand why. I’m 66 and I haven’t been paying any attention at all to the protein I eat. So here’s how the math works out.

In 360 days, I will be able to regain my youthful muscle mass with 10 MAP tablets per day. That’s, of course, in addition to maintaining a good dietary intake. At the age of 67, I will be one year older and have a body that is more youthful. I like that concept. If I took 20 MAP tablets a day, I could accomplish the same goal in half the time.

So start thinking about protein. Use the guidelines in this article to make sure you are getting enough of the best kind. That means eggs, meats, and poultry. And, if you are older, or if you are taking acid-reducing drugs, think about supplementing with MAP.

I want to thank Dr. David I. Minkoff, MD, medical director of Lifeworks Wellness Center in Clearwater, Florida for teaching me all about the NNU values of protein. Dr. Minkoff has competed in over 30 iron man triathlons. And he could tell you some great stories about how much MAP supported him during that amazing run. This is the kind of important information that can really make a difference in your life.


By Dr. Frank Shallenberger, MD

For more information about the Dr. Frank Shallenberger MD and the Second Opinion Newsletter Click Here!