Senior citizens may want to take a tip from body builders and make whey protein shakes a regular part of their diets.
According to researchers at McMaster University, drinking a whey-based shake boosted the physical strength in a group of men over the age of 70.
The results were noticeable after the shakes alone were ingested, and got better when combined with exercise.
The findings were last week in the journal PLOS One.
Searching for muscle
The research team was led by Stuart Phillips, PhD, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and member of McMaster's Institute for Research on Aging.
The team looked at combining ingredients to fight sarcopenia.
Sarcopenia, which occurs when muscle mass and strength decline due to age, can cause people to be unable to keep up with daily activities, and even such things as climbing stairs.
This was the first study to test whether a combination of whey protein, creatine, vitamin D, calcium, and fish oil could offer a solution for preventing the effects sarcopenia.
In the study, two groups of men aged 70 and older took a whey-based supplement or a placebo for six weeks and didn’t exercise.
After that time, they continued to take the supplements or the placebo, and added a 12-week exercise program, in which they exercised twice per week doing high-intensity interval training and resistance training.
Both before and after the exercise regimen started, the men experienced improvements in muscle health. The supplement helped them gain 700 grams in lean body mass.
In the study participants who took the supplement and completed the exercise program, there were even greater muscle gains.
“Clearly, exercise is a key part of the greatly improved health profile of our subjects, but we are very excited by the enhancements the supplement alone, and in combination with exercise, was able to give to our participants,” Kirsten Bell, a PhD student who worked on the study, told Healthline.
Exercise and seniors
Bell said physical activity is imperative for seniors.
The study received a lot of attention for showing that seniors can gain lean tissue mass without exercising by ingesting the supplements.
However, strength training is important for muscle health, too.
“Exercise is clearly a more potent stimulus for strength improvements,” she said.
Bell added that it helped to reduce blood pressure and improve fitness levels in those who participated.
“I would certainly recommend the drinks to most older adults, particularly in situations where they may not be able to exercise, such as if they are injured, recovering from surgery, or ill,” Bell said. “However, I would always advocate for increasing physical activity levels as well.”
A smarter shake?
Bell said the researchers are working on a patent for their supplement because there is nothing like it on the market.
She explained that products such as Boost and Ensure are commonly used supplements for seniors, but they don't contain as much protein or all of the ingredients that the team used in the custom supplement.
Boost and Ensure provide vitamin D, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. However, they only provide 9 to 10 grams of blended protein (milk and soy protein) per serving.
The supplement the researchers used contained 30 grams of whey protein, 2.5 grams of creatine, 400 milligrams of calcium, 500 IU of vitamin D, and 1,500 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per serving, Bell said.
Looking to up your protein intake?
Bell said a high-quality protein, such as whey, is best, ideally taken a couple of times per day.
“Protein is important for supporting muscle mass, which we lose as we age,” Bell explained. “In fact, muscle becomes less responsive to dietary protein the older we get, meaning that we need to consume a higher dose per serving in order to actually stimulate muscle growth. This is why we recommend 30 grams to 40 grams per serving, rather than the 10 gram servings seen in other drinks.”
The creatine in the researchers’ shake is also vital to support strength, while vitamin D and calcium are important for bone health.
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish oil, can reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular health. There is also some evidence omega-3 improves muscle quality.
Erin Macdonald, RDN, a nutrition fitness and wellness coach from California, said other protein sources include soy, egg, pea, brown rice, and vegan seed blends, although whey and soy are most common.
However, those with a dairy allergy cannot tolerate whey and may want to try other options.
It’s also important to avoid shakes with a high sugar content as sugar is an independent risk factor for diabetes.
“Both are good choices, but whey protein appears to be better at building and maintaining muscle mass as it is higher in the amino acid leucine,” Macdonald told Healthline.
According to Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, registered dietitian nutritionists known as The Nutrition Twins from New York, seniors should watch out for a few things when buying protein shakes:
For those on blood thinners, some drinks include up to 40 percent of seniors’ vitamin K needs in just 8 ounces, which can impact the efficacy of the medication.
Some shakes contain caffeine and other stimulants, such as green tea. Those can cause side effects like heartburn, headaches, irritability, or an increased heart rate.
Senna, which may be in some weight loss protein shakes, may have a laxative effect.
Dandelion root may act as a diuretic or a laxative and could cause dehydration.
Also, the researchers said to make sure to check with a doctor before using protein shakes or to inquire about any possible side effects.