Whey is a protein source isolated from milk whose popularity has risen steadily over the years. Market analysts predict continued growth of the global whey protein market, estimating an average compound annual growth rate greater than 7% over the next five years.(1) The sports nutrition industry is a major driver of this growth. Whey protein–based supplements are mainstays not only for those interested in building muscle mass but also for those who turn to dietary protein as a means of replacing carbohydrates in the diet for the purpose of weight loss and fat loss.
The versatility of whey protein means it can be used on its own or in combination with other nutrients to benefit a wide range of health needs. Research indicates that these benefits can extend to adults of all ages. As whey protein’s nutritional properties continue drawing interest, recent studies show positive benefits of whey supplementation for the maintenance of lean muscle mass and decreased fat mass, increased muscle strength in young and elderly adults, a reduced risk of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), as well as intriguing cardiovascular effects.
1. Global Whey Protein Market - Growth, Trends and Forecast (2017 - 2022). Available at: https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/global-whey-protein-market-industry. Accessed August 5, 2017.
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Increased Lean Body Mass and Strength in Healthy Older Men
In a recent study, Kirsten Bell and colleagues from McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) investigated the impact of whey protein supplementation in healthy older men with an average age of 73.(2) In the 20-week, two-phase, randomized, controlled trial, 49 men were allocated to consume either a whey protein supplement (30 g whey protein, 2.5 g creatine, 500 IU vitamin D, 400 mg calcium, and 1500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids), or 22 g of maltodextrin, twice daily.
In phase one of the study, participants consumed only the supplements for six weeks, while in phase two, the participants continued the supplementation along with a daily exercise routine for 12 weeks. The primary study outcomes were isotonic strength and changes in lean body mass.
During the first phase, the group consuming the whey protein supplement experienced statistically significant gains in strength and lean body mass, while no such changes were seen in the maltodextrin group. After phase two, both groups saw increases in strength; however, the whey group also had significantly greater upper body strength compared to the maltodextrin group, indicating the whey supplement’s ability to support strength and increase lean body mass in healthy older men.
2. Bell KE et al., “A whey protein-based multi-ingredient nutritional supplement stimulates gains in lean body mass and strength in healthy older men: A randomized controlled trial,” PLoS One, vol. 12, no. 7. Published online July 18, 2017.
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Countering Sarcopenia in Elderly Men and Women
Whey protein supports several aspects of health in the elderly, particularly concerning sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss. In an Italian study, Mariangela Rondanelli from Università di Pavia (Pavia, Italy) and colleagues researched the effects of whey protein supplementation along with regular exercise in 130 elderly sarcopenic men and women with an average age of 80.3 years.(3)
In the 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, participants were assigned a whey protein supplement (22 g whey protein, 10.9 g essential amino acids, and 100 IU vitamin D), or a placebo, daily in conjunction with a regular controlled physical activity program.
Whey supplementation plus physical activity resulted in several significant improvements compared to the placebo group, including an increase in fat-free mass, gains in relative skeletal muscle mass, and increased handgrip strength. The whey protein supplement led to increases in levels of the anabolic growth hormone, IGF-1, while inflammation decreased as shown by a significant change in C-reactive protein levels (CRP). Quality-of-life measures indicated a significant improvement in physical function, while 68% of those on the whey protein intervention achieved a classification of being non-sarcopenic at the end of the study. By contrast, none of the participants in the placebo group achieved this status. These results suggest important benefits of a whey protein supplement in elderly individuals with sarcopenia.
3. Rondanelli M et al., “Whey protein, amino acids, and vitamin D supplementation with physical activity increases fat-free mass and strength, functionality, and quality of life and decreases inflammation in sarcopenic elderly,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 103, no. 3 (March 2016): 830–840
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Fat Loss and Lean Body Mass Maintenance in Healthy Young Men
Researchers from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) led by Wesley Dudgeon aimed to evaluate the differential effects of administration of a whey protein supplement versus a carbohydrate-rich supplement pre- and post-exercise in resistance-trained men.(4) Because rapid weight loss regimens often result in a decrease in both lean and fat mass, the researchers wished to assess whether a protein-rich regimen led to retention of lean muscle mass better than a carbohydrate-rich regimen.
In this controlled trial, 16 young, resistance-trained individuals (average age of 24) on a calorie-restricted diet completed a 4 day/week training program for eight weeks. One group consumed a whey protein supplement, while the other group consumed a carbohydrate-rich supplement (both administered as 28 g pre- and post-exercise).
After eight weeks, the results of the study showed that total body mass decreased in both groups. However, those individuals consuming the whey protein maintained significantly more lean body mass than the group consuming the carbohydrate-rich drink. The whey group also lost fat mass, while the carbohydrate group did not, although this result did not reach statistical significance. Furthermore, the whey group showed significant increases in upper body strength compared to the carbohydrate group. This preliminary study supports the potential of whey protein to promote the maintenance of lean body mass as an adjunct to a calorie-restricted diet and resistance training program in young, healthy individuals.
4. Dudgeon WD et al., “Effect of whey protein in conjunction with a caloric-restricted diet and resistance training,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 31, no. 5 (May 2017): 1353–1361
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Blood Pressure, Lipids, and Endothelial Function
As the prevalence of high blood pressure increases worldwide, effective measures are needed to reduce the cardiovascular complications associated with this condition. Past studies have found a reduced risk of elevated blood pressure associated with milk consumption. Milk’s whey protein content may be a factor in this.
Investigators led by Agnes Fekete from the University of Reading (Reading, UK) sought to study the cardiovascular effects of whey protein supplementation in adults with prehypertension and hypertension.(5) In this double-blind, randomized, crossover trial, 42 healthy non-smokers aged 30-77 were assigned to consume 28 g of whey protein, 28 g of calcium caseinate (another protein found in milk), or 27 g of maltodextrin twice daily for eight weeks, separated by a four-week washout period.
Whey protein consumption led to a significant reduction in 24-hour blood pressure (-3.9 mm Hg systolic and -2.5 mm Hg diastolic) versus control. Peripheral and central systolic blood pressure were also significantly lowered in the whey protein group compared to the maltodextrin control group. Flow-mediated dilation, a measure of endothelial function, also increased significantly in both the whey and casein groups compared to the control group. Total cholesterol decreased in both milk protein groups; however, only whey protein led to a decrease in triglyceride levels, an effect that reached statistical significance compared to the control group. The results from the study indicate whey protein’s potential benefits in the areas of blood pressure, endothelial function, and blood lipid parameters, all significant factors for cardiovascular well-being.
5. Fekete ÁA et al., “Whey protein lowers blood pressure and improves endothelial function and lipid biomarkers in adults with prehypertension and mild hypertension: results from the chronic Whey2Go randomized controlled trial,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 104, no. 6 (December 2016): 1534–1544
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