Weight Loss and Aging
Remember when you were 16 years old and you could eat half a pizza (and wash it down with a two-liter of soda) and manage to lose a pound? Imagine doing that when you’re 40, or 50, or 60! Just the thought probably caused you to gain a couple pounds, right?
All kidding aside, it is sadly true that the older you get, the easier it is to gain weight unintentionally—and the harder it is to lose that weight.
But here’s the good news: It’s still possible to lose weight and keep it off at any age. Being “over 50” or “over 60” doesn’t automatically mean a life of “fat pants.” Yes, it takes more work and effort to stay at your goal weight at the age of 60 than it did at 20. But it can be done.
Why Weight Tends to Pile on As We Age
To understand what you have to do to keep weight off as you get older, let me give you four of the top reasons why maintaining a healthy weight becomes more of an uphill battle.
#1: Slowing Metabolism
We’ve all heard people use “slower metabolism” as the scapegoat for why they’ve gained weight…but the thing is, they’re right!
Metabolism is the process our bodies use to convert the food we eat into energy. The body uses this fuel right away, or it stores it—sometimes as body fat.
Many factors affect metabolism, including hormones and age. As I mentioned earlier…50- and 60-year-olds no longer have the resiliency of youth to protect against consequences of poor dietary choices. That “million calorie” pizza, breadstick, beer, and ice cream meal you indulged in…you’ll certainly pay for it in the form of heartburn, gas, gastrointestinal distress, and, most definitely, weight gain.
Age-related hormonal changes also alter metabolism. In men, testosterone levels drop, and in women, estrogen declines as a result of menopause. These hormonal shifts affect the way our bodies store and use fat.
Additionally, we lose muscle as we age. You can thank the pituitary gland for this. After about the age of 40, it starts producing less growth hormone, which is what stimulates muscle growth and fat utilization. The lack of growth hormone diminishes muscle mass, which ultimately impacts how the body metabolizes calories. You’ve probably heard that muscle burns more calories than fat, and it’s true. The less muscle mass you have, the less efficiently your body burns calories.
#2: Sedentary Lifestyle
As a society, we are more sedentary than ever before.
According to one study, “Compared with our parents or grandparents, we are spending increasing amounts of time in environments that not only limit physical activity but require prolonged sitting—at work, at home, and in our cars and communities. Work sites, schools, homes, and public spaces have been (and continue to be) re-engineered in ways that minimize human movement and muscular activity. These changes have a dual effect on human behavior: people move less and sit more. From an evolutionary perspective, humans were designed to move—to locomote and engage in all manner of manual labor throughout the day.”1
Our bodies were absolutely designed to move, not sit in front of the computer or TV for eight hours a day. Even if you exercise vigorously for an hour every morning—but then sit behind a desk the rest of the day—you still could be doing your body and metabolism a disservice. It’s important to get up every hour and move around, even if it’s only for a walk around your house, office floor, or neighborhood block.
Keeping active throughout the day enhances “metabolic flexibility”—how well your body shifts from using carbs to fat for fuel. Ideally, with good metabolic flexibility, your body uses fat for fuel while you are at rest. Poor metabolic flexibility results in insulin resistance, reduced ability to utilize fat for energy, and increased reliance on carbohydrates to fuel the body. All of this means…you guessed it…weight gain.
Obesogens are compounds in our environment that contribute to fat accumulation and weight gain.
The first study to really introduce this concept in 2002 explained that environmental causes may be largely responsible for our obesity epidemic. The researcher stated, “The earth’s environment has changed significantly during the last few decades because of the exponential production and usage of synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals. Many of these chemicals are better known for causing weight loss at high levels of exposure, but much lower concentrations of these same chemicals have powerful weight-promoting actions.”2
There are many sources of obesogens. Some of the most prevalent include pesticides sprayed on produce, growth hormones injected in conventionally farmed animals, food additives like soy, MSG, and high fructose corn syrup, pharmaceuticals (ironically, the diabetes drug Avandia appears to be one of the worst!), cigarette smoke, and compounds like perfluorooctanoic acid found in common household items such as nonstick cookware.3
Obesogens are thought to affect the body in multiple ways. Some affect the number or size of fat cells, and others impact hormones that control appetite, satiety, metabolism, and even food preferences. While they can negatively impact people of all ages—even infants—obesogens are yet another aspect working against us and our weight loss efforts as we age.
#4: Lack of Sleep
The older we get, the fewer hours of high-quality sleep we get each night. We tend to have harder time falling asleep and more trouble staying asleep. And disorders such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and benign prostatic hyperplasia (in men) become more prevalent too, all of which can negatively impact how well and long we snooze.
Mounting evidence has shown that too little sleep can really mess with appetite and even food cravings. According to one study, sleep deprivation can trigger a significant increase in the desire for fattening, high-calorie foods.4
Another study found that chronically poor sleep can raise the risk for diabetes, as well as decrease levels of leptin (the hormone that tells the brain, “Stop eating, I’m full”) and increase levels of ghrelin (the hormones that signals hunger and the urge to eat). The conclusion of this study was that, “neuroendocrine regulation of appetite and food intake appears to be influenced by sleep duration, and sleep restriction may favor the development of obesity.”5
How to Lose Weight and Keep It Off
Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to weight loss at any age. Whether you’re 15, 25, 55, or 85, the only surefire way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you take in. This means healthy diet, coupled with regular exercise.
However, there are a few extra things you can do if you feel the “middle-age spread” is affecting you.
- Get enough sleep. You may want to supplement with melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” With age, production of this compound tends to decrease. Get tested for sleep apnea and other conditions that inhibit sleep, and treat accordingly. You should also implement other techniques that promote good, restful sleep: Keep a consistent bedtime. Sleep in a completely dark room so that your body gets the signal to pump up its natural melatonin production. Avoid electronics an hour or two before bedtime, as blue light can also impact melatonin production. And if needed, an hour or so before going to bed, take a calming herb to help promote relaxation and a sense of calm. Some good ones include chamomile and valerian.
- Buy organic meats, dairy, and produce. Also avoid processed foods and make sure your diet contains as many whole, natural foods as possible. Doing so can help you avoid a good number of obesogens. In addition, consider using natural disinfectants like vinegar and baking soda to clean, instead of the chemical options found in most stores.
- Get moving—and stay moving. I get it—not everyone loves to exercise. But you don’t even have to go to the gym or take a fitness class. All you need to do is stay active throughout much of the day. Get up and walk around for 10 minutes every hour. Incorporate weights into your walks to build more muscle. (And remember—the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn throughout the day.) As the research shows, sitting/staying sedentary for too long is the real enemy—even if you do work out vigorously every day.
I hope you understand that turning 40, or 50, or even 80, does not mean you need to give up on the idea of looking and feeling fit and healthy. By making some minor adjustments to your routine and lifestyle, you can lose weight and keep it off, no matter what your age.
- Owen N, et al. Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk. Mayo Clin Proc. 2010 Dec;85(12):1138-41.
- Baillie-Hamilton PF. Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic. J Altern Complement Med. 2002 Apr;8(2):185-92.
- Holtcamp W. Obesogens: An environmental link to obesity. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Feb;120(2):a62-a68.
- Greer SM, et al. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4;2259.
- Copinschi G. Metabolic and endocrine effects of sleep deprivation. Essent Psychopharmacol. 2005;6(6):341-7.