Whey protein for older people

Paul Johnson



Paul Johnson MSc SENr looks at the subject of the best whey protein for older people and explains why this protein supplement has something to offer everybody. Whey protein has long been a staple in most fitness enthusiasts' and athletes' supplement stacks, but the use of whey protein is now being used by those outside of the normal sports nutrition circles. In particular, the use of whey protein for older people, ranging from veteran athletes to the elderly is on the rise. The use of whey protein for older people is helping them offset the ageing progress, improve exercise recovery and in some cases improve quality of life. Whey protein really is a supplement that has something to offer everybody. If your reading this the chance are your already pretty active, watch what you eat and supplement your diet accordingly with a view to improving your performance and body composition. But as we age, the way we exercise, eat and supplement has the ability to have a significant impact on our quality of life. Sports nutrition is constantly evolving and being applied to aid a wider population that would never have considered using sports supplements such as whey protein. This is especially true for older individuals, so this article will hopefully explain the benefits of whey protein for older people. If this doesn't apply to yourself just yet, hopefully it would be useful for your parents, grandparents or personal training clients that could benefit from maintaining muscle as we age.


As we age we lose muscle as an accelerated rate, through a process known as sarcopenia. This is part of the ageing process we all go through, but factors such reduced levels of physical activity, poor diet, lower protein intake and poor anabolic response to food and exercise increases the speed and severity of this muscle loss. The loss of muscle from sarcopenia, and in turn the corresponding loss of strength has a knock on effect on quality of life making daily tasks more difficult, resulting in even less physical activity and the cycle continues. A reduction in strength increases the risk of falls and in turn increases mortality rate. Two factors that are associated with increased risk of mortality are: 1) Length of time spent sat down each day. 2) A person's ability to help them self-off the floor unaided. Maintaining muscle as we age is a hugely important aspect of health that often goes un-talked about, but the health and social benefits to maintaining strength and muscle as we get older are priceless. Sarcopenia affects both of these, preventing muscle loss and increasing muscle mass as we age increases life expectancy and quality (1): So while we're training to look big and ripped when we are young, it is also going to keep us a live for longer as we get older.


Sarcobesity (or sarcopenic obesity) is a similar process to sarcopenia and involves losing muscle and gaining fat. This sound doesn't sound too good, and in reality it's not... In short, it's the opposite of what we want when training - sarcobesity is the loss of muscle and a gain in body fat as we age. This is a real problem, not only for the way we look, but our health to. Muscle is important not only for improving our bench press or athletic performance, but has lots of important functions for health to, these include: 1) Being metabolically active, muscle burns up calories as it requires energy for movement, stability, thermogenesis. The more muscle we have and the more we move it, the greater the metabolic demand on the body. This means resting metabolism is higher, resulting in a higher threshold before incoming excess calories are stored as fat for a rainy day. 2) Blood sugar control; The more muscle we have the greater the storage area is for glucose to be taken out of our blood stream and stored in the right places, this helps keep blood sugar levels in check. If we lose muscle and gain fat as we age, this has a double whammy effect on blood sugar control as there's less muscle to store glucose but more fat that can interfere with insulin sensitivity. This can increase the risk of diabetes and other lifestyle based health conditions as we age.

Whey protein to the rescue

The chances are that if you are reading this you use a whey protein powder as part of your daily supplementation to order to improve recovery from exercise and body composition goals. When we are younger a wide range of different proteins can be used to help achieve this as our bodies are more sensitive to the amino acids found within the protein and the threshold for which a positive affects can occur on a muscle is lower. As we age we become less sensitive to the anabolic signals that amino acids (leucine particularly) send to our muscles to start the rebuilding process of broken down muscle (2). This means that as we age we need: 1) More total protein intake to get the same anabolic response 2) Faster digesting proteins due to changes in digestive function 3) A high leucine content due to age related "anabolic resistance" This is why the use of whey protein older people is so beneficial, because whey protein ticks all the boxes for having a fast digesting speed and high leucine content and has constantly been shown to outperform other protein sources for protein synthesis as we age (3).


This isn't to say that if you cannot tolerate whey protein or are vegan you're stuck for choices. With a few minor tweaks to non-dairy proteins such as pea, brown rice and soy, these can be just as useful for helping offset age related anabolic resistance. The main reason these protein sourced haven't fared to well compared to whey protein is due to their lower leucine content (4). This amino acid causes a increase in a signalling protein call mammalian target of rapamycin (we're just call it mTor for short). When levels of this signalling protein increase, the body knows there is sufficient protein and energy available to help build muscle. When these levels are low, the body senses this and so puts the brakes on muscle building as it needs to use incoming protein and energy for other more important functions (daily tissue maintenance, recovery from injury, hormone production). mTor kick starts the ball rolling for a number of processes that help build muscle and prevent muscle breakdown, so without it these processes simply can't occur. So when studies have compared equal doses of whey to non-dairy protein, whey has always come out of top (4, 5). To combat this you could: 1) Have a larger dose of non-diary protein to match the leucine content of whey 2) Add free form leucine or BCAAs to non-dairy protein to increase the specific leucine content, this would save calories compared to option 1, which could be important from a fat loss stand point. These options are not only applicable to older people, but anyone that what's to maximise the anabolic response of a non-diary protein. Additional, supplementing with leucine either with a meal containing low levels of leucine (i.e. beans, lamb, pork, vegetarian) or two hours after such meal can maximise and prolong the anabolic effect from that meal (6).

Take home points on whey protein for older people

As we age, we lose muscle and strength as part of the natural ageing process. Preventing this muscle loss has a significant effect on overall quality of life as we age. The loss of muscle and increase in body fat as we age increases the risk of lifestyle related conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. The use of whey protein for older people can help prevent age related muscle loss due to its fast digestion rate and high leucine content which works offset anabolic resistance as we age. Adding free form leucine or BCAAs to non-dairy proteins or meals lacking in high quality offers the same benefits as using whey protein, and is a strategy that could be used by everyone looking to maximise the anabolic effect of a meal, regardless of age.

Further reading on whey protein for older people

1. Toss F, Wiklund P, Nordström P, Nordström A. Body composition and mortality risk in later life. Age Ageing. 2012 Sep;41(5):677-81. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afs087 2. Fereday A, Gibson NR, Cox M, Pacy PJ, Millward DJ. Protein requirements and ageing: metabolic demand and efficiency of utilization. Br J Nutr. 1997 May;77(5):685-702 3. Gryson C, Walrand S, Giraudet C, Rousset P, Migné C, Bonhomme C, Le Ruyet P, Boirie Y. Fast proteins" with a unique essential amino acid content as an optimal nutrition in the elderly: Growing evidence. Clin Nutr. 2013 Sep 13. pii: S0261-5614(13)00242-2. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2013.09.004 4. Yang Y, Churchward-Venne TA, Burd NA, Breen L, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Myofibrillar protein synthesis following ingestion of soy protein isolate at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012 Jun 14;9(1):57. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-9-57 5. Phillips SM, Tang JE, Moore DR. The role of milk- and soy-based protein in support of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein accretion in young and elderly persons. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Aug;28(4):343-54. 6. Churchward-Venne TA, Breen L, Di Donato DM, Hector AJ, Mitchell CJ, Moore DR, Stellingwerff T, Breuille D, Offord EA, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: a double-blind, randomised trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Nov 27

Tagged: Nutrition

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