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How Whey Protein Can Benefit Older Adults

A new study has revealed whey protein can be a practical, cost-effective solution to partially reduce the negative effects of bed rest on body composition and also improve the recovery of muscle strength among older adults.

Why does this matter? The negative impact of short-term bed rest or periods of physical inactivity, common in clinical environments such as hospitals and extended-care facilities, is a significant issue for the health and quality of life in older adults. Even brief periods—five to seven days—can lead to negative changes in body composition like loss of muscle and gain of fat, as well as a significant loss of muscle strength and function. These outcomes are compounded by the inability to regain the muscle mass and strength lost for most older adults, contributing to, and speeding the progression of, sarcopenia.

In this study, simply improving the protein quality of the diet by adding a modest amount of whey protein at each meal helped to preserve muscle, increase fat loss and improve the recovery of muscle strength during rehabilitation in older adults.

Specifically, the study evaluated healthy, older adults (20 subjects who were between 60 and 80 years old) who were on seven days of bed rest followed by five days of rehabilitation with a supervised exercise program. Study participants were randomized to a mixed macronutrient diet (55% carbohydrate, 29% fat and 16% protein) or a whey-augmented diet that was matched for total calories and protein. The protein and calories were evenly distributed across three daily meals. As anticipated, bed rest resulted in a decrease in muscle mass and strength in both groups. However, the whey diet was able to partially protect leg lean mass in comparison to the mixed diet. Additionally, the whey group lost more fat than the mixed group during bed rest. The whey group also experienced a full recovery of muscle strength following rehabilitation, while the decline persisted in the mixed group.

The authors concluded that simply improving the protein quality of the diet via use of whey protein, without increasing total calorie or protein intake, can help to partially reduce the negative impact of short-term bed rest on body composition and support improved recovery of muscle strength during rehabilitation in older adults.

The findings of this study are novel and can have significant implications for a variety of clinical populations. While experts have recommended higher protein diets to be beneficial in this scenario, it may be challenging for some to achieve these levels of protein intake and maintain weight during periods of inactivity. Supplementation with essential amino acids and/or leucine has also been shown to have some benefit. Whey protein may be a practical solution as it is one of the highest quality proteins available that provides a concentrated source of essential amino acids and leucine for a relatively modest number of calories.

This study demonstrated that when diets were matched for total calories, macronutrient composition and protein, simply improving the overall protein quality of the diet by providing a modest amount of whey protein at each meal can have a beneficial effect.

Here are some tips to help people add whey to their eating plans.