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Gaining weight as you get older: It's avoidable

Posted Apr 06 2010 12:00am
Remember when you were a kid and you could eat anything you wanted -- cookies, ice cream, Halloween candy galore -- and not gain an ounce?

At a certain point, you probably began to notice this was no longer the case. For some of us, the realization strikes in college, when we start seeing the consequences of a late-night beer-and-pizza habit. For others, it happens in our 20s or 30s, when we become busy with careers and kids and no longer have time for self-care.

If you’ve managed to stay in shape during these stages of life, chances are your body will begin to change when you hit middle age, no matter how diligent you’ve been with your diet.

Why does this happen, and is there anything you can do about it?

As we grow older, our bodies naturally lose muscle mass and begin to add fat. Fat weighs less than muscle does, so while the number on the scale may not increase much, your clothes feel tighter. Muscle also helps define your shape, while fat is more beholden to gravity. The result: the so-called “middle-age spread.”

But where did that extra fat come from, you may be wondering -- especially since you’re not eating any more than you ever did?

Sorry to say, your metabolism -- the rate at which your body uses fuel -- gradually decreases as you age. Part of the reason is, again, muscle loss. Muscle tissue burns a lot of calories, and as you lose muscle, your calorie requirements drop. Other physical functions decelerate with age, as well. Cell turnover throughout your body is less frequent. If you’re a post-menopausal woman, your body no longer needs the resources to go through a menstrual cycle every month.

On top of this metabolic slow-down, you probably don’t get as much exercise as you once did. The aches and pains of middle age have a way of preventing you from moving around the way you used to.

Longtime dieters face an added challenge. I've met many middle-aged women who eat very little, but still can't manage to lose weight. Over a lifetime of dieting, they have essentially trained their bodies to burn as few calories as possible. Have you been on and off your share of diets over the years? Your body doesn’t know you’ve been trying to lose weight all this time. All it knows is that the food supply is unreliable and inconsistent, so it has learned to conserve every calorie.

Even with these factors working against you, it’s still possible to avoid packing on pounds as time goes by. Here’s what you need to remember.
  • Exercise. And not just because it burns calories. Exercise helps with weight management in many other ways: it preserves your muscle mass, regulates your blood sugar, helps you sleep better, slows bone loss, boosts your mood, improves your balance so you don’t fall and get hurt, and offers numerous other benefits. It's just like they say: move it or lose it!
  • Listen to your body. How often do you plow through a meal on auto-pilot, assuming that the same foods and portions you ate yesterday are right for you today? Don’t take that for granted. Try to eat just what you need. It might be less than you think. (It might also be more than you expect, and that’s okay, too.)
  • Shun junk food. Even though your calorie requirements have decreased, you still need nearly the same levels of nutrients. Maybe a teenager can get away with eating potato chips and cookies every day, but you don’t have that kind of room in your budget. (It’s not healthy for the teenager, either, but that’s beside the point.) Everything you eat must pull its weight, so to speak.
  • Be realistic. Now is probably a good time to accept that you’ll never be a fashion model, at least not in this lifetime. And guess what: as you get older, you don’t want the body type of a model anyway. Very slender elderly people are more fragile, and statistically they have a greater mortality rate . Carrying a couple of extra pounds as you head toward your golden years may very well extend your life span.
Copyright © 2010 Eleanor Kohlsaat LLC
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