Study: Whey protein superior for rebuilding muscle mass in seniors

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12 Oct 2018 --- Whey protein may be the best protein source for older adults wishing to rebuild lost muscle mass. The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, identified that when it comes to seniors, proteins are not created equal. In the study, only whey protein was found to increase lean muscle mass and muscle protein synthesis during recovery from short-term muscle loss. Rebuilding muscle mass in seniors is of immense importance as they are more likely to be hospitalized and suffer from weakened muscle and strength conditions, such as sarcopenia.

“Muscle loss is quite common with aging and accelerated with unexpected bouts of inactivity, illness or even a brief hospital stay in aging adults,” says Stuart Phillips, Senior Author and Director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE) at McMaster University. 

“The aim of our study was to determine if one type of protein supplement (30g of whey or collagen consumed twice daily) could optimize how well muscle made new proteins by measuring muscle protein synthesis during recovery from a period of inactivity – to recover lost muscle,” he adds.

Click to EnlargeOlder adults often experience sarcopenia, a condition characterized by the loss of muscle and strength. Because it can adversely affect overall health, balance, gait and the ability to perform the simple tasks of everyday life, the team from McMaster set out to determine if protein type could aid in recovery following a period of inactivity. NutritionInsight has further reported on NPD within medical nutrition aimed at seniors, which you can read here

The study
The participants were divided into two groups – each group consumed a diet containing 55 percent of protein from foods and 45 percent of protein from supplements of either whey protein or collagen protein during the five-week period. 

Additionally, both groups experienced a two-week simulated hospital stay or bout of inactivity. Their daily steps were restricted to 750 per day and their calorie intake reduced by 500 calories. A one-week recovery period immediately followed where participants returned to normal activity levels.

“We chose to compare whey protein versus collagen protein because they differ in the amount of leucine they provide," says Sara Oikawa, the Lead Author and a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster. 

“The essential amino acid, leucine, has been shown to be a key stimulator of muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein from dairy has a greater amount of leucine than almost all other commonly available proteins,” she adds.

During the periods of reduced activity and calorie intake, both the groups experienced decreased muscle mass. To the surprise of the researchers, neither protein supplementation protected muscle mass during inactivity and calorie-restriction.

“The remarkable takeaway is that proteins – even if ‘complete’ – are not created equal. Formulations designed to enhance seniors' muscle health should include the right protein in the ingredients,” says Dr. Phillips.

“Our data shows that for seniors, collagen isn't a great choice, whereas whey protein is very effective. Whey is a high-quality protein that can be superior for muscle stimulation and recovery in older adults.”

Whats next?
The next vital area of research for whey protein is clinical nutrition, Moises Torres-Gonzalez, PhD, Scientific Subcommittee Chair, Whey Protein Research Consortium, tells NutritionInsight.

“Whey protein has the potential to provide great benefits for older adults or any patient for recovery after hospitalization. We know that hospitalization, which is more common in older adults, causes a dramatic loss of muscle mass and strength. If patients don’t receive the proper nutrition, which should include a high-quality protein such as whey protein, after being discharged from the hospital, it is very likely they would have poor recovery and could end up being re-hospitalized. Here is where we feel whey protein has a great potential to become as part of the nutrition strategy for patients during and after hospitalization,” he explains.

There will also need to be more focus on whey protein delivery forms, Dr. Phillips tells NutritionInsight.

“I think that whey is clearly the superior protein source but we need to work on vehicles for its delivery – drinks, puddings, bars – that are convenient and tastes great. It’s also likely that other nutraceutical bioactive components could be added to whey to improve its efficacy,” he says.

Phillips also points out that although plant-based proteins are increasingly in demand from consumers, it is important for consumers “to understand the benefits of whey. While there are a variety of reasons why people choose vegetarian options, whey protein is the superior option for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It is a high-quality protein with a complete amino acid composition. And research has shown that its leucine content triggers protein synthesis more effectively than other proteins.”

By Laxmi Haigh

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