Whey Proteins: Improving the Quality of Life for People with HIV/AIDS

December 9, 2009

Dairy products, including whey proteins and milk powders, are known to be highly nutritious foods for use in health and wellness products. Today, whey proteins are garnering increased attention as an ingredient to improve body composition for individuals coping with HIV/AIDS in low-income countries, many of whom are undernourished and progressively being wasted. Wasting, the excessive breakdown of healthy muscle tissue, is one of the more detrimental effects of HIV/AIDS. It reduces quality of daily life in terms of work, family and individual care.1

A high-quality, high protein diet is a recommended approach to preserving lean muscle, however those with HIV/AIDS often have difficulty eating and digesting food. In a USDEC monograph, Dr. Paul Cribb, an expert on muscle metabolism, reviews the role of whey protein for individuals wasted by HIV/AIDS. First, whey protein is highly soluble, easily digested and quickly absorbed, making it ideal for those with compromised digestive systems. Second, the branch-chain amino acid (BCAA) profile of whey protein is close to skeletal muscle to help promote muscle growth. Third, whey protein's amino acid profile exceeds World Health Organization standards and provides a high level of cysteine. Cysteine is beneficial to the preservation of lean body mass. For these reasons, whey protein is more frequently used in higher-income countries in nutrient-dense foods targeted to help prevent or reduce muscle loss.

With all we know about whey protein, there is more to learn regarding its use as a nutritional supplement in low-income settings. USDEC is supporting independent research to evaluate the impact of whey protein in individuals with AIDS beginning anti-retroviral therapy (ART). ART is often associated with an unfavorable re-distribution of body fat. Led by renowned scientists at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and the University of Jimma (Ethiopia), patients in the study will receive a three-month supply of whey protein supplements designed to improve body composition, strength and ultimately, quality of life.

"Positive findings have been reported from high-income areas on the use of whey protein and exercise to improve muscle mass but there is limited information from low-income countries with low dairy intake," says Dr. Kim F. Michaelsen, Professor at the University of Copenhagen and Principal Investigator of the ART research. "In our study we hope to clarify if whey has a beneficial effect on muscle mass in adults infected and being wasted from the HIV virus." Field trials begin in 2010, with preliminary results expected in 2011.

With every tangible finding, new questions arise around the potential role of whey protein for people living with HIV/AIDS, such as when supplementation would be most effective, or whether supplementation can help slow the progression of HIV to AIDS. We encourage others to become involved in investigating these and other questions so together we can improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS, their families, and their communities.

1HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). AIDS is the last stage of progression of the virus as it overtakes the immune system. Malnourishment has been found to accelerate the progression of HIV.