Whey Protein and Exercise: A Recipe for Healthy Muscles, Weight, and Blood Sugar

Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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Whey Protein and Exercise: A Recipe for Healthy Muscles, Weight, and Blood Sugar
There are two consistent tools that repeatedly help with fat loss, muscle mass preservation, blood sugar, blood pressure, and the disorders that accompany the breakdown of these processes. They are whey protein and physical exercise. New findings continue to validate and expand our knowledge about these tools and why they provide critical benefit.

Research in the last year demonstrates the continued steadfastness and shining benefits of whey protein within several age groups and levels of fitness. Whey protein also provides remarkable support for type 2 diabetics, overweight individuals, senior citizens, and athletes. In addition, a recent study describes the newly identified benefits of exercise in the context of methylation and gene activity affecting over 5,000 gene signals. It puts “use it or lose it” in a whole new light.

Type 2 Diabetes and Whey Protein

Type 2 diabetes affects over 366 million people around the world as of 2011. By 2030, the number is expected to rise to 552 million people. This preventable, costly disorder is running rampant, not only in adults but also in children, at alarming rates. The economic burden on the world is immense as is the personal consequences.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes are often mild until there is a major problem. Symptoms may include being very thirsty, frequent need to urinate, blurry vision, feeling grumpy or irritable, feeling worn out or exhausted, tingling in hands and feet, and chronic yeast infection problems. Type 2 diabetes occurs commonly with weight gain around the belly and obesity, but one can also have normal body weight with type 2 diabetes. Improving diet, exercising, and losing weight provide the cornerstone of treatment for diabetics. Whey protein studies show credible evidence that its use ought to be part of that cornerstone.

In a randomized, controlled study, Australian researchers evaluated individuals with type 2 diabetes and how whey protein affected their blood sugar. In a short, but decisive study, it was found that using seventeen grams of whey protein with five grams of guar gum fiber prior to a carbohydrate-rich meal lowered blood sugar measurements to more manageable levels. The researchers determined that the diabetics could lower their hemoglobin A1C by this simple dietary change by up to one percent when used long term. This may not seem like a big difference, but hemoglobin A1C values are like the earthquake Richter scale measurement; dropping it by one percent is a major positive change. The drop in blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C occurred by simply including two moderate servings per day of quality whey protein with guar gum fiber.

Loss of Muscle Mass, Obesity, and Weight Loss Diets

One of the troubling things that occur with age and obesity is the loss of muscle mass. Weight gain occurs with adipose tissue or fat cells increasing and muscle mass declining. This flabby tissue is replacing one of your greatest assets for healthy weight management, i.e. muscle. The shrinking of your biceps muscles, the loss of core strength with weak abdominal muscles, and the loss of glut muscles are indicative of this muscle loss. Think of your middle-age parents or spouse, especially the men in your life. If they have no bottom or glut muscles and their pants are sagging but the belly has grown, this is classic obesity and muscle loss. The technical term for this muscle wasting, metabolic syndrome, and obesity is sarcopenia. This picture of muscle mass loss occurs along with many weight-loss diets and is vital to prevent.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study earlier this year that addresses this concern with preserving muscle mass and helping with weight loss. This information simply confirms that protein helps preserve muscle mass, but it took things a step further with real life examples. In this study, 80 obese adults ages 57 to 68 participated in a 13-week weight loss program with a very low calorie intake of 600 calories total per day.

The participants who consumed whey protein with vitamin D improved their Body Mass Index (BMI), lost fat pounds, and actually gained muscle mass. The control groups lost weight and fat pounds with following the very low calorie diet, but notably lost muscle mass. Six-hundred calorie per day intake is a starvation diet. The fact that those who ingested whey protein actually gained muscle mass is major testimony to keeping healthy metabolic function intact without further straining the body.

Athletes – Cutting Weight and Improving Muscle Mass

Combining a high protein diet with a low calorie diet and exercise encourages healthy weight loss and actually enhances fat-free muscle mass. Significant evidence proves that a diet that is 2 to 3 times higher in protein than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) helps with weight loss in athletes. It is particularly effective when combined with exercise, especially resistance exercise.

A recent study found that athletes experienced improved body mass index, reduced fat mass with a protein intake of 1.8 to 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram. This translates to a 150 pound athlete needing 122 to 180 grams of protein per day in regular meals throughout the day. In order to achieve this intake, the researchers recommended whey protein as it has high branch chain amino acid content (leucine specifically) and is easily absorbed. This is a great way to optimize muscle recovery and new muscle formation.

For average individuals not involved in high end athletics, whey protein and higher protein diets helps keep muscle mass intact during weight loss, amongst other things. Whey protein helps blood sugar regulation and allows increased calcium absorption from the intestinal tract, helping bone mass. Whey protein provides vital essential amino acids with robust delivery to musculoskeletal tissues, helping muscle tissues more easily repair and improve muscle health. A recent clinical trial showed that supplementing with whey protein prior to and during a weight loss program offered superior benefit over soy protein or carbohydrate-rich diets. Muscle mass improved and fat loss occurred.

A meta-analysis study reviewed 9 clinical trials that involved 418 diabetic patients and the use of whey protein. The amount of whey protein and total protein intake was 25 to 32 percent of total calories. This is far less than the amount used with athletics. The evaluation of all of these studies showed that protein helped reduce blood pressure in type 2 diabetics, reduced hemoglobin A1C levels, stabilized muscle mass, and resulted in more weight loss within a six month period than those in the control groups. When it comes to simple, easy dietary changes and impact, clearly whey protein has great benefit.

Fatty Liver Disease and Whey Protein

A sedentary lifestyle easily leads to poor blood sugar regulation and unfit metabolism which results in the build-up of fat within the liver or fatty liver disease, technically known as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). This is a prevalent health concern as the number of patients diagnosed is rapidly increasing in recent years. NAFLD can happen in both normal body weight and obese individuals. Individuals with fatty liver problems have a very high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Besides exercise, animal studies show that whey protein protects the liver, preventing fatty liver disease development. The animals that received whey protein had much less liver injury and cell death. The essential amino acid methionine found in whey protein was of particular benefit as it reduced gene expression of the inflammatory compounds IL-6 and iNOS leading to NAFLD and liver cell death. Whey protein supports the burning of calories in the liver (thermogenesis) and healthy leptin function, reducing fatty liver build-up.

Whey Protein and the Elderly: A Case for “Prehab”

Clearly, whey protein and high protein diets are enormously helpful for athletes and those struggling with weight management, diabetes, blood pressure, NAFLD, and loss of muscle mass with weight loss. Whey protein and higher protein diets may also be quite helpful for individuals in frail health and elderly.

A recent case report describes the benefit of whey protein with an 85-year-old gentleman facing bladder cancer surgery and had additional serious concerns with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes, anemia, kidney failure, severe depression, anxiety, and glaucoma. In order for him to be able to tolerate the surgery for the bladder cancer, his health care team got him started on a “prehabilitation” program. Rather than waiting to start a nutrition and exercise program after the surgical trauma, the gentleman started on an early rehab or a “prehab” program to get him in better shape.

After only four weeks with supplementation of whey protein (20 grams per day) and magnesium because of serious deficiency, moderate aerobic (walking) and resistance exercises, his overall level of function markedly improved to the point where he was accepted for surgery. He tolerated the surgery well and was able to return home after a few short days where he continued on the nutrition and exercise program. His progress was measured before, during, and after surgery. He had such progressive, remarkable improvement that it shocked his health care team.

This type of progress and turn around hopefully provides incentive, hope and a push for healthier proactive choices facing our elderly loved ones. It also gives credence to making sure simple, healthy and safe nutritional choices and physical activity are implemented in even those with serious, frail health problems.

New Insights on Exercise, Methylation and Muscles

Exercise is essential to weight loss, improving BMI, losing fat mass, improving muscle mass, reducing blood sugar, reducing NAFLD, and improving blood pressure. We know that the act of being sedentary and sitting too long markedly increases the cause of death from any cause, including cancer risk and heart disease. With each passing year and decade, the natural progression is muscle atrophy unless we are proactive. Blood sugar, blood pressure, leptin, and weight management become less efficient and harder to manage if we succumb to inactivity. In addition, inactivity shuts down mitochondria function, greatly affecting energy production, memory and cognition, endurance, heart health, cartilage health – virtually every cell in the body is affected. The less we exercise, the less energy we will have.

Exercise also turns on the DNA in our muscle cells through a process called epigenetics. Recent research published in the journal Epigenetics opened a door to new information about what exercise does to methylation and our genes. Researchers have identified that the outside of the gene changes with exercise, thus changing gene function and even the shape of our genes. The process affected is methylation. Via epigenetics and exercises, methyl groups are prompted to attach to the outside of the gene and make the gene more or less able to accept and act in response to biochemical signals. Scientists discovered that exercise turns on healthy methylation.

The scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden had 23 healthy, young adults perform an exercise in a unique way. After measuring several variables and performing muscle biopsies, the men and women were asked to exercise the lower half of their body and to only use one leg. The study participants bicycled with the use of only one leg for 45 minutes per day, four times per week for three months, and left the other leg sedentary. They went about daily activities as normal without altering leg use or gait pattern. Muscle biopsies were repeated again at the end of the experiment.

As expected, the leg that was exercised had more muscle tissue and was in better shape. The big surprise was that the exercised leg featured new methylation patterns. Over 5,000 sites on muscle cell genes were affected. The gene changes did not occur in the unexercised leg that had normal day to day activity only. Most of the gene expressions identified was related to energy production and metabolism, insulin function, and inflammation management within the muscles.

The experiment showed that exercise definitively changes thousands of gene signals in muscle tissues that determine how healthy and fit our overall body is. There is no way around it. Physical exercise is critical and fundamental to metabolism and human health. No matter how many times and how many different ways it is said, if you don’t use it you will lose it.

Poor methylation is a topic of massive interest in health and disease. Anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of the population has gene SNPs or polymorphisms that affect methylation. The variable of disrupted methylation function induced by lack of exercise literally opens the door to several hundred diseases linked with poor methylation.

Methylation provides critical functions in our body like memory, thinking, cognitive skills, energy production, DNA repair, immune system function and balance, detoxification and liver function. Common disorders associated with impaired methylation include spina bifida or other birth defects, atherosclerosis, miscarriages, diabetes, insomnia, autoimmune disorders including Hashimoto’s, allergies, pulmonary embolism, cancer, and several hundred more. Healthy methylation requires methylated, active forms of B12 (methylcobalamin), folate (not folic acid), magnesium, zinc, B2 and B6 and choline.

Short Bursts of Exercise

Wherever you are at with your physical fitness is where you start. Start with one-minute bursts of activity, working your body as hard and as fast as you can. For one person, this may mean huffing and puffing walking up a flight of stairs. For another, this may mean 60 squats cranked out in 60 seconds. You simply push yourself for 60 seconds, then rest and repeat again in one minute. If you have physical limitations and significant health problems, start slowly. If you are homebound and can only walk 50 feet at a time, then keep it up. Even repetitively lifting one pound bags of rice from your bed, resistance bands, and stretching is something.

Those who are more physically fit may want to challenge themselves with this process of one minute max intensity exercise with one minute rest, and repeat it five times. This is a great way to turn on mitochondrial biogenesis (birth of new mitochondria) and the AMPK enzyme. Yoga, walking, hiking, swimming, bicycling, gardening, jogging, martial arts and so many other activities provide nourishing activity. Find two or three activities that you enjoy and just do them. Researchers are still debating what activity, for how long, how intense, etc. is most beneficial. Anything outside of a sedentary, couch-potato lifestyle will provide benefit.

And, to help recovery and improve muscle mass, start your day with 20 to 25 grams of quality whey protein mixed with guar gum and make a tasty smoothie. It’s a quick easy way to start the day off on the right foot! Reawaken your New Year’s resolution and get started on your whey protein and exercise routine today! Health is all about aging well.

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