Nutrition: Shedding Weight Without Losing Muscle Strength

Ben Boulden

For older people, a shrinking waistline soon may not mean any loss in physical vitality, mobility or muscular strength.

When an older person loses fat through dieting or ill health, it also involves a loss of muscle tissue. That loss in turn means physical weakness, a great tendency to fall and a general reduction in mobility.

“The maintenance of muscle mass and function actually improves mobility and function.”
The research of Robert Wolfe, Ph.D., director of the Center for Translational Research in Aging and Longevity in the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, has found that certain naturally occurring amino acids can stimulate protein synthesis and prevent protein and muscle breakdown.

“In the case of weight loss, the maintenance of muscle mass and function actually improves mobility and function because if they actually have weight loss, then they have less weight to move, and they are maintaining that strength,” Wolfe said. “In that case, mobility is improved. That’s a principal target in a lot of the things we are doing because maintaining mobility is really the key to independent living for most elderly. That’s the main target we have.”

Creating safe nutritional products with new formulations of naturally occurring amino acids means their use does not require physician oversight. Wolfe said they also outperform any intact or high-quality protein.

Elisabet BØrsheim, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, also is working on formulations of amino acids that are more potent than any pharmaceutical in reducing liver fat and circulating triglycerides. Wolfe said the only comparable drug adversely affects the liver in 15 percent of cases, so it is seldom used.

Wolfe and his research team additionally are investigating other amino acid formulations to help patients with cancer, prolonged inactivity or catabolic states where muscle is lost at an accelerated rate. The research has targeted vascular control, matching blood flow to tissue demand and even immune function.

“The general, overall focus here is to try to develop products that will translate to people being able to take nutritional formulations on a daily basis that target specific metabolic problems,” Wolfe said.

Much of Wolfe’s research has been done through the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at the Reynolds Institute, which is fitting because its application to the elderly started at another Claude Pepper center at another university. There, he was looking first at helping improve the metabolic function of children who were burn victims. The survival rate of third-degree burn victims, with better nutritional metabolic control, went from 40 percent to 98 percent.

Wolfe also has worked with the U.S. Swimming Team and Olympic Committee for many years on promoting muscle function in highly performing athletes.

“Nutritional research now is focused on everything from debilitated elderly to elderly doing exercise to elite athletes, and improving their performance through natural, nutritional products,” he said. “Our chief goal is to improve the everyday life of the elderly.”