GALVESTON, Texas – A new research study suggests that improving the quality of protein people eat while on bed rest could actually help protect muscle mass and burn fat.
Physical inactivity and bed rest, especially when accompanied by illness or injury, can lead to a host of problems, not least of which is an increase in fat and a loss of muscle mass. Even during rehabilitation, restoring body composition can be a challenge.
But fixing the problem could have something to do with what people eat while inactive.
Researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston said that improving dietary protein quality reduced some of the negative effects of physical inactivity on body composition and muscle function in their paper published in The Journal of Gerontology.
“When a person is restricted to bed rest, even for a few days, they typically lose muscle and gain fat,” said Dr. Douglas Paddon-Jones, a professor at UTMB and senior author of the study. “Simply eating more food and protein may help protect muscle, but will likely increase body fat. Conversely, eating less food may help avoid fat gain, but will accelerate muscle loss. In this study, we were interested in finding a pragmatic, practical approach to help deal with this issue.”
During a 7-day bed rest study, Paddon-Jones and his team had one group of volunteers consume a typical whole food, mixed animal and plant protein diet. Meanwhile, a second group consumed similar meals with some of the whole food sources of protein replaced with whey protein. Both diets had the same calorie content and quantity of protein, fat and carbohydrate.
“Whey protein, a naturally occurring dairy protein, is one of the highest quality proteins and is also easy to add to meals”, said Dr. Emily Arentson-Lantz, a research scientist at UTMB and the study lead author.
The research team found that the group on the whey protein augmented diet kept more of their muscle mass, and actually lost some body fat, while the standard diet group lost less fat and more muscle mass. Once the research participants started rehabilitation after bedrest, the whey protein diet group also recovered muscle strength faster than the standard diet group.
“Whey protein has the right proportion of key essential amino acids needed to efficiently carry out the functions that proteins perform in the body. Our results could represent a more nuanced, short-term solution that moves us beyond the ‘more is always better’ approach,” Arentson-Lantz said.
Arentson-Lantz and Paddon-Jones noted that their study could have relevance for individuals or patients able to eat relatively normally but temporarily unable to be physically active. When on bed rest, consuming too much or too little food can lead to a host of unwanted changes in body composition and metabolism.
“The quantity of food needed to protect muscle and metabolic health during periods of inactivity falls within a pretty narrow range,” Arentson-Lantz said. “So food and protein quality absolutely matter. If you are sick or injured, we want to figure out the best way to help you maintain muscle, avoid fat gain and then recover faster. Many interventions can be expensive, burdensome or even risky. But everyone needs to eat. If we can tweak regular meals and get health benefits, then that’s a great place to start.”
Other study authors include Elfego Galvan and Adam Wacher of The University of Texas Medical Branch and Jennifer Ellison from Texas Woman’s University.
This research was funded by the National Dairy Council, the Dairy Council of California, the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health, and in part by the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center grant and the National Center for Research Resources. The study was conducted with the support of UTMB’s Institute for Translational Sciences, supported by Clinical and Translational Science Awards from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.