Eat to Beat Sarcopenia: Foods That Won’t “Frail” You

Written by Dr. Robert Ashton, MYOS Chief Medical Officer
Originally published by Third Age on August 12, 2014

With aging comes frailty. The more frail we are, the more likely we are to get sick or die from chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and other leading causes of death. If you can slow the debilitating process, then you have a shot at living not only a longer life, but a healthier one too. 

In light of this, it’s not surprising that a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the development of drugs to treat sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscle that can lead to frailty, has raised hopes for avoiding some of the more challenging aspects of aging. These drugs are targeting myostatin, a protein our bodies produce that affects muscle production. Hence, limiting myostatin and sustaining muscle strength and function as we get older may help reduce age-related frailty. 

Levels of myostatin increase as we age. During this process, which begins to occur around the age of 40, we begin to lose muscle mass at about 1 percent a year until we die. At the beginning of the 20th Century, life expectancy was only 47, so for our ancestors, maintaining muscle health wasn’t a huge concern. From an evolutionary perspective, humans did not need to maintain muscle mass over the past 300,000 years. With the significant increase in longevity during the 20th century, due to improved public health and significant medical advances, the evolutionary mechanisms in our body have not yet caught up. Individual life expectancy is now almost 80, with many living beyond 90. Now that we live more than twice as long as our ancestors, the uptick in myostatin plays a key role in sarcopenia and age-related frailty. While exercises such as lifting weights, doing yoga and walking do seem to reduce myostatin levels, they may not reduce them enough to reverse or retard sarcopenia. Many drug companies are developing drugs that block myostatin production or shut off the signals to produce it altogether. These treatments will take years to reach consumers, and their use will be limited to people who have specific and advanced forms of sarcopenia. 

So what can most of us do now to reverse, slow and prevent muscle loss and age-related frailty? 

More protein seems to help. Dr. Michael Lustgarten, a researcher at the Tufts University Nutrition, Exercise Physiology, and Sarcopenia Research Laboratory has found eating foods rich in certain amino acids is associated with increased lean muscle mass in older adults. Red meat, eggs and grains such as oats contain the highest total amount of essential amino acids. 

However, there are also bionutritional products, which are foods that do not alter the naturally occurring nutrients that improve health by supporting specific functions. The pharmaceutical and biologic agents currently in development seek to mimic the behavior of natural myostatin inhibitors. While these drugs will take 10 years to get regulatory approval, bionutritional products for myostatin regulation are available today. This means that we can obtain the benefits of myostatin regulation—a key element to reducing frailty and living longer healthier lives—now. 

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