Whey to Go: New Meta-Analysis Crowns Whey Protein King for Countering Sarcopenia

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As we age, maintaining muscle strength and function becomes increasingly critical for preserving mobility, independence and quality of life. While resistance exercise is key, protein supplementation can augment its benefits. But with various protein options out there, which is best? A comprehensive new meta-analysis provides a compelling answer: whey protein comes out on top.

Whey Proven Best Protein for Building Muscle in Older Adults, New Meta-Analysis Confirms

Sarcopenia, the aging-related loss of muscle mass and strength, poses a major threat to the health and independence of older individuals. While resistance training is a well-established intervention to counter sarcopenia, the optimal type of protein supplementation to maximize its effects has been less clear. Now, a new network meta-analysis published in Nutrients has provided strong evidence favoring whey protein over other common protein supplements for augmenting resistance training's impact on muscle mass, strength, and physical function in middle-aged and older adults.1

The meta-analysis, conducted by researchers from Taiwan, included 78 randomized controlled trials with a total of 5,272 participants. It compared the effects of six protein sources - whey, milk, casein, meat, soy, and peanut - in untrained community-dwelling adults, hospitalized patients, and institutionalized residents who suffered from acute or chronic health conditions and were undergoing resistance training.

Whey protein emerged as the clear winner, demonstrating the most effective results for increasing muscle mass (SMD = 1.29, 95% CI: 0.96, 1.62), handgrip strength (SMD = 1.46, 95% CI: 0.92, 2.00), and walking speed (SMD = 0.73, 95% CI: 0.39, 1.07) compared to the other protein sources. Surface-under-the-cumulative-ranking (SUCRA) scores, used to rank the probability of each treatment's effectiveness, were highest for whey at 0.86, 0.85, and 0.84 for muscle mass, handgrip strength, and walking speed respectively.

Interestingly, the analysis also identified several factors that moderated the treatment efficacy. Participant health condition significantly influenced the effect on muscle mass, with healthier individuals seeing greater gains. Gender played a role in handgrip strength improvements, with males benefiting more than females. And supplementation dose impacted leg strength outcomes, with higher doses yielding better results.

These findings add to the already substantial body of research demonstrating the potent health effects of whey protein. The GreenMedInfo database2 has indexed hundreds of scientific articles on whey protein, highlighting its therapeutic potential for a wide array of health concerns. Looking at the top 10 researched benefits:

  1. Immune system enhancement: Numerous studies show whey can boost glutathione levels,3 stimulate antibody production,4 and protect against infections.5
  2. Anti-cancer effects: Whey has demonstrated anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects against various cancers, including colon,6 breast,7 and prostate8 cancers.
  3. Muscle building: Long before the current meta-analysis, many trials had found whey effective for increasing lean body mass, often outperforming other proteins like casein.9
  4. Weight management: Several studies indicate whey can aid fat loss while preserving lean muscle,10 increase satiety,11 and beneficially alter body composition.12
  5. Anti-inflammatory action: Whey shows anti-inflammatory properties, reducing C-reactive protein13 and pro-inflammatory cytokines.14
  6. Cardiovascular protection: Clinical trials have found whey supplementation can improve blood pressure and vascular function,15 decrease LDL/HDL ratios,16 and lower triglycerides.17
  7. Antioxidant activity: The cysteine-rich proteins in whey enhance the body's natural antioxidant defenses, countering oxidative stress.18
  8. Blood sugar regulation: Whey intake has been associated with improved insulin sensitivity19 and glycemic control,20 with potentially protective effects against type 2 diabetes.21
  9. Bone health: Animal studies suggest whey protein may increase bone mineral density and protect against osteoporosis, especially in the context of exercise.22
  10. Detoxification support: By boosting glutathione, the body's master antioxidant, whey can enhance the elimination of toxins and protect against their damaging effects.23

In addition to whey protein, the GreenMedInfo.com database24 has identified over 40 natural substances that have been studied for their potential benefits in sarcopenia. These include a variety of nutrients, herbs, and dietary compounds such as vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, creatine, ginseng, and resveratrol. This wealth of research underscores the potential for a multi-faceted, integrative approach to managing sarcopenia, with whey protein as a key component.

In conclusion, this network meta-analysis provides compelling evidence for whey protein's superiority compared to other protein supplements in supporting resistance training's beneficial effects on aging muscle. When combined with the extensive literature demonstrating whey's multi-system health benefits, it makes a strong case for incorporating whey protein into healthy aging strategies. As always, the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider should be sought to determine the appropriateness and optimal dosage of any supplements.


1. Liao CD, Huang SW, Chen HC, Huang MH, Liou TH, Lin CL. Comparative Efficacy of Different Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Physical Indices of Sarcopenia among Community-Dwelling, Hospitalized or Institutionalized Older Adults Undergoing Resistance Training: A Network Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2024 Mar 25;16(7):941. doi: 10.3390/nu16070941. PMID: 38612975; PMCID: PMC11013298.

2. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/substance/whey 

3. Grey V, Mohammed SR, Smountas AA, Bahlool R, Lands LC. Improved glutathione status in young adult patients with cystic fibrosis supplemented with whey protein. J Cyst Fibros. 2003 Dec;2(4):195-8. doi: 10.1016/S1569-1993(03)00097-3. PMID: 15463873.

4. Pérez-Cano FJ, Marín-Gallén S, Castell M, Rodríguez-Palmero M, Rivero M, Franch A, Castellote C. Bovine whey protein concentrate enhances mucosal innate immunity during early life in rats. Br J Nutr. 2007 Oct;98 Suppl 1:S80-4. doi: 10.1017/S0007114507838074. PMID: 17922966.

5. Wolber FM, Broomfield AM, Fray L, Cross ML, Dey D. Supplemental dietary whey protein concentrate reduces rotavirus-induced disease symptoms in suckling mice. J Nutr. 2005 Jun;135(6):1470-4. doi: 10.1093/jn/135.6.1470. PMID: 15930454.

6. Castro GA, Maria DA, Bouhallab S, Sgarbieri VC. In vitro impact of a whey protein isolate (WPI) and collagen hydrolysates (CHs) on B16F10 melanoma cell proliferation. J Dermatol Sci. 2009 Oct;56(1):51-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jdermsci.2009.07.011. Epub 2009 Aug 19. PMID: 19695839.

7. Cheng SH, Tseng YM, Huang SW, Tsai SM, Tsai LY. Food Chem Toxicol. 2017 Sep;107(Pt A):440-448. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2017.07.017. Epub 2017 Jul 11. PMID: 28709970.

8. Rowlands JC, Hakkak R, Ronis MJ, Badger TM. Whey and soy protein fed at equal protein levels exert different effects on rat mammary carcinogenesis. Toxicol Sci. 2002 Nov;70(1):40-5. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/70.1.40. PMID: 12388833.

9. Burd NA, Yang Y, Moore DR, Tang JE, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Greater stimulation of myofibrillar protein synthesis with ingestion of whey protein isolate v. micellar casein at rest and after resistance exercise in elderly men. Br J Nutr. 2012 Sep 28;108(6):958-62. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511006271. Epub 2012 Jan 31. PMID: 22289570.

10. Frestedt JL, Zenk JL, Kuskowski MA, Ward LS, Bastian ED. A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2008 Mar 27;5:8. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-5-8. PMID: 18371214; PMCID: PMC2289832.

11. Luhovyy BL, Akhavan T, Anderson GH. Whey proteins in the regulation of food intake and satiety. J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Dec;26(6):704S-12S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2007.10719651. PMID: 18187437.

12. Pal S, Ellis V, Dhaliwal S. Effects of whey protein isolate on body composition, lipids, insulin and glucose in overweight and obese individuals. Br J Nutr. 2010 Sep;104(5):716-23. doi: 10.1017/S0007114510000991. Epub 2010 Apr 9. PMID: 20377924.

13. Lands LC, Iskandar M, Beaudoin N, Meehan B, Dauletbaev N, Berthiuame Y. Dietary supplementation with pressurized whey protein improves immune function in patients with cystic fibrosis. J Med Food. 2010 Feb;13(1):77-82. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2008.0337. PMID: 20136439.

14. Xiao K, Jiao L, Cao S, Song Z, Hu C, Han X. Whey protein suppresses epithelial-mesenchymal transition and alleviates intestinal barrier dysfunction through AMP-activated protein kinase/endoplasmic reticulum stress signal pathway in lipopolysaccharide-induced Caco-2 cells. Br J Nutr. 2016 Jan 26:1-10. doi: 10.1017/S0007114516000416. PMID: 26810899.

15. Pal S, Ellis V. The chronic effects of whey proteins on blood pressure, vascular function, and inflammatory markers in overweight individuals. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jul;18(7):1354-9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2009.397. Epub 2009 Nov 5. PMID: 19893505.

16. Kawase M, Hashimoto H, Hosoda M, Morita H, Hosono A. Effect of administration of fermented milk containing whey protein concentrate to rats and healthy men on serum lipids and blood pressure. J Dairy Sci. 2000 Feb;83(2):255-63. doi: 10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(00)74872-7. PMID: 10714858.

17. Petyaev IM, Dovgalevsky PY, Klochkov VA, Chalyk NE, Kyle N. Whey protein lycosome formulation improves vascular functions and plasma lipids with reduction of markers of inflammation and oxidative stress in prehypertension. ScientificWorldJournal. 2012;2012:269476. doi: 10.1100/2012/269476. Epub 2012 Nov 14. PMID: 23213349; PMCID: PMC3510396.

18. Zavorsky GS, Kubow S, Grey V, Riverin V, Lands LC. An open-label dose-response study of lymphocyte glutathione levels in healthy men and women receiving pressurized whey protein isolate supplements. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2007 Sep;58(6):429-36. doi: 10.1080/09637480701253581. PMID: 17710587.

19. Pal S, Ellis V, Ho S. Acute effects of whey protein isolate on cardiovascular risk factors in overweight, post-menopausal women. Atherosclerosis. 2010 Sep;212(1):339-44. doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2010.05.032. Epub 2010 May 31. PMID: 20547344.

20. Jakubowicz D, Froy O, Ahrén B, Boaz M, Landau Z, Bar-Dayan Y, Ganz T, Barnea M, Wainstein J. Incretin, insulinotropic and glucose-lowering effects of whey protein pre-load in type 2 diabetes: a randomised clinical trial. Diabetologia. 2014 Sep;57(9):1807-11. doi: 10.1007/s00125-014-3305-x. Epub 2014 Jul 10. PMID: 25008371.

21. Mortensen LS, Hartvigsen ML, Brader LJ, Astrup A, Schrezenmeir J, Holst JJ, Thomsen C, Hermansen K. Differential effects of protein quality on postprandial lipemia in response to a fat-rich meal in type 2 diabetes: comparison of whey, casein, gluten, and cod protein. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):41-8. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.27281. Epub 2009 May 27. PMID: 19474129.

22. Takada Y, Aoe S, Kumegawa M. Whey protein stimulated the proliferation and differentiation of osteoblastic MC3T3-E1 cells. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1996 Jun 5;223(2):445-9. doi: 10.1006/bbrc.1996.0911. PMID: 8670303.

23. Chitapanarux T, Tienboon P, Pojchamarnwiputh S, Leelarungrayub D. Open-labeled pilot study of cysteine-rich whey protein isolate supplementation for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis patients. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Jun;24(6):1045-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1746.2009.05865.x. Epub 2009 Jun 24. PMID: 19638084.

24. https://greenmedinfo.com/disease/sarcopenia

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