How does the study of performance nutrition in athletes impact healthy ageing? Phil Jakeman



Media Alert: The Journal of Nutrition
Protein-rich breakfasts and lunches increase lean tissue mass in the elderly

As hypothesized, whereas lean body mass decreased in the control group, those consuming the additional protein experienced an increase in lean body mass. This difference added up to an impressive 1.3-pound lean-mass difference between the groups. The scientists concluded:

An optimized and balanced distribution of meal protein intakes could be beneficial in the preservation of lean tissue mass in the elderly.”

Food and Health research in PESS investigates the interaction between nutrient intake and physical activity on the regulatory control and adaptation of musculoskeletal function. The focus is Healthy Aging and Performance Nutrition (HAPN) and is funded as part of the National Technology Centre, Food for Health Ireland. A renowned Centre of Excellence, Food for Health Ireland is one of the biggest technology centres in Ireland and its purpose is to identify novel ingredients coming from milk to develop functional food ingredients which will offer health benefits to consumers. Key to this research programme is a knowledge of how the bioactivity of the food we eat can be modified and the timing of intake optimised to promote a greater physiological adaptation in muscle and bone. Performance nutrition investigates how nutrient intake increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) following resistance exercise and the recovery of muscle glycogen following prolonged endurance exercise. We term this pre-training nutrition (PTN).

Recently we have applied our findings from the study of PTN requirement for protein intake in athletes to the study of ageing, in particular the age-related decline in lean tissue mass, termed sarcopenia, and the bone mass, termed osteopenia. To illustrate further, knowledge of the nutrient regulators of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and discovery of the meal level of protein intake by type, amount and bioactivity in athletes, led to the design of a nutrient formulation proven by placebo-controlled clinical trial to counteract the age-related decline in lean tissue mass, i.e. progression to sarcopenia, in older adults aged 50 to 70y.

But how much protein should we eat to optimize MPS of our muscles? It is reasonably well accepted that about 30g of protein is ‘optimal’ for most adults. However, a principal finding from our analysis of ‘habitual’ dietary intake indicates only 1 (i.e. dinner) out of the 3 main meals per day contains an optimal amount of protein. Breakfast and lunch are normally deficient. So, most of us are losing the opportunity to optimally regulate protein synthesis by about 2/3 of what is possible! The proposed solution was to use the information gained from our cell-based studies to formulate a supplement added to the subject’s diet at breakfast and lunch and thereby optimize MPS at every meal of the day (Figure 1).


A parallel study of the interaction of combining a programme of physical activity with optimised nutrient intake augmented the response almost 2-fold and increased function as measured by time to walk 1000m.

There is great value and reward in the conduct of such studies. The impact of this study was highlighted by the press release from the Journal of Nutrition an extract from which is copied above and through the granting of a Patent by the European Patent Office (Patent No 1358/3154377 Published on 19.04.17) that affords licensed development and marketing. But the benefits to the elderly were not restricted to muscle. The subjects in receipt of the protein supplement also gained benefit to their bones! Measured by dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) significant increases were observed in bone mineral density (BMD) at the spine and the hip. We are developing this aspect of our work through the conduct of further studies on the interaction between nutrition and physical activity for bone health.

Clearly we can learn a lot from the study of the high performance athlete, but what is impressive is the translation of this knowledge to the benefit of all in society. The analogy would be the benefit to the household motorist of the advances made by Formula One motor racing. We look forward to reporting further on our performance-enhanced nutrient support to the functional health of the elderly.

You may read more @

Norton, C., Toomey, C., McCormack, W.G., Francis, P., Saunders, J., Kerin, E. and Jakeman, P., 2016. Protein supplementation at breakfast and lunch for 24 weeks beyond habitual intakes increases whole-body lean tissue mass in healthy older adults. The Journal of nutrition146(1), pp.65-69.

Francis, P., Mc Cormack, W., Toomey, C., Norton, C., Saunders, J., Kerin, E., Lyons, M. and Jakeman, P., 2016. Twelve weeks’ progressive resistance training combined with protein supplementation beyond habitual intakes increases upper leg lean tissue mass, muscle strength and extended gait speed in healthy older women. Biogerontology, pp.1-11.

Phil Jakeman is a Professor in Exercise Physiology at the Physical Education & Sport Sciences Dept. in the University of Limerick.  See Phil’s profile here. Contact Phil at:
ORCHID ID   Researcher ID

Tagged with: