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McMaster University Supplement Stimulates Muscle Mass and Strength Gains in Older Men

 Resistance Training and HIIT Increases Strength Gains

Supplement companies are going to love this study.

Loss of strength and muscle mass (sarcopenia) is a common part of aging—increasing the risk of falling and the need for assisted living. Scientists at McMaster University (Professor Stuart Phillips senior researcher) developed a multi-ingredient supplement that slowed the slide. Resistance and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) produced further gains in strength.

Let’s look at the study and whether the same or better results could be achieved without a supplement.  

The researchers randomly assigned 49 healthy older men (average age 73) into two groups. One group took the supplement twice a day for six weeks (without exercise), while the other group took a placebo. For the next 12 weeks, the men continued to take the supplement and the placebo, but added a progressive exercise program consisting of resistance and high-intensity interval training.

“The results were more impressive than we expected,” lead researcher and PhD student Kirsten Bell told McMaster University Daily News (July 18, 2017).

In the first six weeks, the supplement resulted in 700 grams of gain in lean body mass—the same amount of muscle these men would normally have lost in a year. The strength gain in the supplement group was 3% during phase one and a further 20% during phase 2. The control group saw no change in strength during phase 1. In phase 2, however, the control group saw a strength gain of 21%.

The control group showed no gain in lean mass at any time during the study.

“Clearly, exercise is a key part of the greatly improved health profile of our subjects,” Bell continued, “but we are very excited by the enhancements the supplement alone and in combination with exercise was able to give to our participants.”

“We conclude that twice daily consumption of a multi-ingredient nutritional supplement increased muscle strength and lean mass in older men” Bell and her team wrote. “Increases in strength were enhanced further with exercise training.”

The Ingredients and Why

The experimental supplement was composed of whey protein, creatine, calcium, vitamin D, and Omega-3 fatty acids. The researchers commented on the choices as follows:

While it is not possible to isolate which compounds in the supplement were responsible for the outcomes observed, each ingredient has been shown to independently affect aspects of sarcopenia and thus has a rational basis for inclusion. Notably, whey protein supplementation can variably enhance lean mass and strength, creatine can improve strength, vitamin D supplementation can reduce the risk of falls and fractures, and n-3 PUFA has been shown to improve muscle quality, mass, and function in older adults.

By employing a multi-ingredient approach to dietary supplementation we hypothesized that we would be more likely to influence more than one potentially important pathway/mechanism through which older persons would derive an anti-sarcopenic effect.

Other trials using a combination of ingredients (whey protein [leucine] and vitamin D) similar in dose to those we employed in our supplement have shown preservation of lean mass during weight loss, enhanced strength, increased lean body mass, and enhanced physical function (in sarcopenic older persons).

You can read the entire study online: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0181387

My Take

This study proves that nutrition is important, but it doesn’t prove that a supplement is necessary for best results.

I don’t like to encourage people to think that good nutrition comes in a pill, a bottle, or a canister. Good nutrition comes in whole foods the way they are in nature, with all the fiber and bulk intact. Nutritional needs are more likely to be satisfying with a balanced diet of whole foods. Whole foods are also more satisfying than capsules or supplements. See our FAQ on the difference between processed and unprocessed foods: http://www.cbass.com/FAQ(10).htm

Clearly, there are times when a multi-ingredient supplement would be desirable. Hospitalization might be one. Situations when food selection is sparse would be another. Otherwise I much prefer whole foods over supplements.


This photo taken by Laszlo at the front gate of our office gym shows my results at 75
 achieved primarily by eating a balanced diet of whole foods and exercising regularly.

The only performance supplement I take is creatine, which I’ve been taking before and after workouts for about 20 years. The thing to remember is that creatine provides a one-time bump in performance; additional gains are up to you. It makes training more enjoyable by putting you at a slightly higher level. It’s important to take the smallest effective dose to avoid cramping and other side effects. For more details and 10 years of follow-up, see my article written shortly after the launch of this website in 1996: http://www.cbass.com/CREATINE.HTM

My only nutritional supplement is a small amount of fish oil, which adds a few extra points to the level of omega-3 fatty acids in my blood. My main source of omega-3 fats is the sardines in my breakfast. Whether the few extra points in my Omega-3 Index reading make any real difference is questionable; some studies show that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish are more beneficial than those found in fish-oil capsules. For more about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids: http://www.cbass.com/FishOil.htm and http://www.cbass.com/FishOil&Telomeres.htm

My diet includes all of the other ingredients in the McMaster supplement.

My protein comes mainly from milk, eggs, fish, and beans. Far better than relying on whey protein as your main source of protein.

"Calcium is absolutely essential, along with vitamin D, for healthy bones," says the Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor (September 2017). Calcium also provides assistance to muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. They recommend boosting your calcium intake with food, before considering a supplement. While it continues to be studied, getting too much calcium may be harmful. "Food sources of calcium don't appear to increase risk," according to the Arthritis Advisor.

Milk also helps to satisfy my calcium needs; other sources include sardines with bones, almonds, and white beans.

Vitamin D is harder to get from food, but milk is fortified with vitamin D. Your body also makes vitamin D, but it needs sunlight to turn it into useable form. My daily walks provide the necessary exposure. "About 20 minutes a day should be enough," says the Arthritis Advisor.

Finally, I take a low-dose multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to insure that my vitamin and mineral needs are satisfied.

My regular visits to the Cooper Clinic have shown that my nutritional needs are being met year after year.

September 1, 2017

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