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Academics’ novel nutritional supplements can help older women meet their dietary needs, study shows


Supplements containing specialised amino acids, derived from dietary proteins and commonly used by body builders, may help older women maintain their muscle mass, and address protein and energy deficiencies, new research from Leeds Beckett University shows.

Dr Theocharis Ispoglou

The research, led by Dr Theocharis Ispoglou in the Institute of Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure at Leeds Beckett and published in the latest edition of Nutrition Journal, found that older women who consumed an alternative to high protein-based bars, either alongside or an hour before their breakfast, had a significantly higher total energy intake after accounting for the energy content of the supplements.

Dr Ispoglou developed the essential amino acid-based bars and gels at Leeds Beckett in collaboration with a Product Developer to the Food Industry based at Askham Bryan College. He explained: “Amino acids are important because they are the building blocks of proteins which are responsible for building muscle tissue.  Many of these amino acids are not made by our bodies, but supplied through the food we eat.

“For elderly people, maintaining muscle mass becomes problematic. From the age of 65 onwards it starts to decrease at greater rates, leading naturally to a loss of physical strength and increased frailty. This can cause falls, fractures and other disabilities, affecting independence and, as our ageing population expands, placing a growing burden on health and care services.”

Dr Theocharis Ispoglou's nutritional supplement bar and gel

Dr Ispoglou’s previous research has found that certain groups of older people may need to consume double the recommended daily intake of protein – for example, protein deficiencies tend to be larger in women than men - and combine that with exercise in a bid to achieve a higher muscle mass and ultimately an increased level of strength.

“To achieve the recommended daily intake, a person would need to have approximately 30 grams of protein per meal – which equates to a lot of food on a daily basis,” explained Dr Ispoglou. “This coupled with the fact that dietary protein makes people feel fuller presents an ongoing challenge to older people who tend not to get enough protein and energy through their food.

“An alternative solution to this is using palatable essential amino acid-based bars and gels, which we have developed. These contain the required proportions and amounts of the muscle-building blocks (essential amino acids) found in dietary proteins and makes consumption much more manageable, therefore can be taken alongside food to enhance the anabolic effect of food and assist older people in meeting their protein requirements without affecting their appetite for food.”

The bars and gels contain 7.5 grams of the essential amino acids each (the equivalent of approximately 15 g of high quality protein), of which 3 g is leucine. Leucine has a crucial role in the regulation of muscle protein synthesis and is popular among body builders as it is known to boost the body’s ability to make muscle from protein.

Dr Ispoglou said: “The number of people over the age of 60 is growing faster than any other age group. Although population ageing is a success for humanity, it presents a number of challenges, of which age-related sarcopenia is one. Sarcopenia is defined as the presence of low muscle mass, together with either low muscle strength or low physical performance. This natural deterioration contrasts with the need to maintain muscle mass and physical function so fundamental to promoting health and independence with age.”

Volunteers, independently-living women aged between 60 and 80, and in good health, took part in one of two experiments: one group consumed either a 37.5g bar or 50ml gel an hour before breakfast, and one consumed the products alongside their breakfast. Both groups also contained control participants who did not consume any of the nutritional products, only the breakfast.

The results of both experiments showed that consuming the bar or gel before or with breakfast resulted in a significantly higher total energy intake compared to the control group, after accounting for the energy content of the supplements. Therefore, both the bar and the gel can be taken alongside food as a means to enhance total energy intake and the anabolic effect of food.

In both studies, appetite perceptions (hunger, satisfaction, fullness and prospective food consumption) and palatability ratings (visual appeal, smell, taste, aftertaste and pleasantness) were also measured and blood samples taken.

Dr Theocharis Ispoglou

Dr Ispoglou said: “We expected to see a small to moderate reduction in volume of food eaten when the supplements were consumed one hour before breakfast, yet this did not happen. Neither the bar nor the gel affected the food cravings of participants.

“We believe this is the first study to demonstrate that supplementation of two unique essential amino acid blends, administered as either a bar or a gel, enable older women to increase energy intake regardless of whether the supplements are taken one hour before or alongside a breakfast meal.”

The study revealed higher ratings of visual appeal and smell for the bar compared with the gel, however there were no differences between the supplements for ratings of taste, aftertaste or overall palatability.

Dr Ispoglou added: “Our study shows that the bar or gel may be an effective nutritional means for addressing protein and total energy deficiencies in older women. We hope that our findings will inform communities and policy makers about what needs to be done to best help the UK’s ageing population.”

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