Amino Acids, Whey Help to Shed Fat, Keep Muscle

By Ben Boulden


March 7, 2013 | Overweight people older than 65 may be able to shed fat and keep most of their muscle at the same time, according to a recent University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) study.

“For an individual who is overweight and elderly, muscle is precious,” said Robert H. Coker, Ph.D., associate professor of geriatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine. “It’s crucial. As we age, we lose muscle, and it becomes more important to preserve it. If we lose too much of it, then we can’t even do minimal activities.”

Coker said the study was to see what it would take to make it possible for older patients to lose weight for better health, yet not lose muscle.

Even with a healthy diet and exercise, some muscle loss is inevitable as a part of aging. An attempt to lose body fat can accelerate that, offsetting the health benefits of losing excess body weight.

“Sometimes the benefits of weight loss are outweighed by the risk of loss of necessary muscle in a geriatric patient,” Coker said.

In early 2012, Coker, along with Scott Schutzler, R.N.; Nicolaas Deutz, M.D., Ph.D.; and Bob Wolfe, Ph.D., all with the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, concluded a study done in 11 older, obese adults.

The study was funded by a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health and other grants. The small business grant was administered through HealthSpan LLC, which created the formulation used in the meal replacement. Coker and the other authors were compensated by HealthSpan as consultants for the grant.

The adults were divided into two groups and both were put on meal replacement programs for eight weeks. While carbohydrate and fat intake was identical in each group, one group consumed 14 grams of protein a day. A second group consumed that same amount of protein, but half of the 14 grams included essential amino acids and whey protein. Tracers, which are chemicals that would show up in metabolic analysis, allowed the researchers to see how much of the protein was being synthesized in the muscles of the study participants.

The group consuming amino acids and whey protein lost a greater percentage of fat to muscle than those consuming the conventional meal replacement.

“We were a little bit disappointed that we didn’t completely stop muscle loss,” Coker said, adding that one reason for the muscle loss was the individuals were still protein deficient because of the restricted-calorie diet.

He said the researchers hope to reformulate the meal replacement using a higher amount of protein with essential amino acids. Coker ultimately would like to see a meal replacement that results in no lean tissue loss at all.

Adding amino acids with whey to the meal replacement not only helps minimize protein loss, it also helps burn fat. The process of protein synthesis burns calories. The more synthesis that takes place the more calories are being burned.

Before the study began, the conventional meal replacement group had about 39 percent body fat, and at the end, they averaged 37.5 percent. Individuals in the essential amino acids group went from 41.8 percent to 36.3 percent.

The idea behind the study was the work done earlier by Wolfe, which examined the use of amino acid supplementation as a way to limit muscle loss in patients on extended bed rest.