Why do I put on weight as I get older?

Lifestyle, Seniors, Weight Management
unhealthy lady reaching for cake

As people get older, they often put on weight. They assume this is a normal, natural state of affairs. They know that their metabolism slows as they get older. They know that’s why they are putting on weight. Yet for many people claiming a slower metabolism is an excuse for piling on the pounds.

Does metabolism slow with age?

Metabolism does slow, but not by the huge amount that many people think. Researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center (USA) studied how metabolism changes with age. Four Pennington Biomedical researchers were part of an international team of scientists who analyzed the average calories burned by more than 6,600 people as they went about their daily lives. The participants’ ages ranged from one week old to 95 years, and they lived in 29 different countries.

They found that our metabolisms don’t really start to decline again until after age 60. The slowdown is gradual, only 0.7 percent a year. But a person in their 90s needs 26 percent fewer calories each day than someone in midlife.

Lost muscle mass as we get older may be partly to blame, the researchers say, since muscle burns more calories than fat. But it’s not the whole picture.

One of the researchers, Dr Ravussin says:

“We took dwindling muscle mass into account. After 60, a person’s cells slow down … This study shows that the work cells do changes over the course of the lifespan in ways we couldn’t fully appreciate before.”

So yes, your metabolism does slow down, but it’s a small amount each year and is no excuse for piling on the pounds. There are other factors involved.

As we get older, we tend to exercise less

This is sometimes because people believe this is what they should do as they get older – take it easy, rest more and do less. There is a grain of truth in this. Your ability to recover from vigorous exercise gets less as you get older, so you may need to take more time off or run shorter distances. But the amount you need to ease back is often wildly over-exaggerated.

It’s important to stay active. It’s even more important systematically to stay active as you get older than when you are younger. Sport, exercise, weight lifting are important for your body and for your brain. It improves you’re general sense of well-being and reduces your chances of falling.

A study published in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) found that a dance class three times weekly improved not only fitness and metabolic profile but also self-image and self-esteem in postmenopausal women.

You will consume additional calories with exercise, but more importantly you will retain muscle mass. There are lots of benefits to this – you will find all sorts of every day tasks easier and be less likely to fall or develop dementia. One important benefit is that it takes more calories for your body to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat. So if you have an extra 10 lb of muscle, you will need more calories than if you have an extra 10 lb of fat, even when you are just sitting around.

If you spend a lot of time watching television, you need to consume fewer calories. If you are passionate about sedentary hobbies, you need to eat less. Playing bridge, doing intricate embroidery, knitting for charity or tracing your family history may stimulate the brain and fill your days with passion and pleasure. These activities don’t use that much physical energy.

Judy Caplan on behalf of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says:

“You might not like my answer because it requires focus and work! You have to watch what you eat and exercise regularly. There is no way around it! Limit the servings and kind of carbs, make sure the carbs are whole grain, and exercise at least 4-5 times per week. That is the secret.”

Can eating become a habit?

As people get older, they often eat more and more from habit – they know what they like and what suits them. They may eat according to the clock. When asked; “Are you hungry?”, they may immediately look at a watch or clock to decide the answer. Because it’s 11 am, do you decide that you’ll have a milky coffee and a couple of biscuits (cookies)?  That’s just what happens at 11am. Do you always have a pudding or other dessert with your dinner? Do you always have bread with soup? Do you always have a bar of chocolate or a couple of glasses of wine of an evening? Perhaps we shouldn’t call it a decision, as it’s so automatic. So when someone asks “are you hungry?”, don’t look at your watch, but check out how you feel. When you notice it’s your normal lunch time, stop and think what you want to eat according to how hungry you are. This will take practice and perseverance.

So, try committing yourself to cooking one new healthy meal a week. If you mainly buy your meals ready cooked, commit to choosing something new each week. If you regularly eat out, try something different from the menu at least once a month. Not everything will be a success, but this way you keep your  culinary horizons expanded, and that helps to keep your mental horizons expanded to. These actions will start to break up those automatic eating habits.

People who are at home all the time will often eat from boredom. The food is there and they are a little bored, so a handful of this or a couple of that helps break up the boredom. If you eat from boredom, you need to find other things to do to fill up your life.

If you want to improve your diet, change slowly.  Focus On Nutrition (Harvard Medical School) says:

“By the time you are 40, you’ll have eaten some 40,000 meals—and lots of snacks besides. Give yourself time to change, targeting one item a week… Take a long-range view. Don’t get down on yourself if you slip up or “cheat” from time to time. Don’t worry about every meal, much less every mouthful. Your nutritional peaks and valleys will balance out if your overall dietary pattern is sound.”

study from the University of Warwick and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) NHS Trust demonstrates that age is no barrier to losing weight.

Lead author Dr Thomas Barber of Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick said:

“Weight loss is important at any age, but as we get older we’re more likely to develop the weight-related co-morbidities of obesity. Many of these are similar to the effects of aging, so you could argue that the relevance of weight loss becomes heightened as we get older, and this is something that we should embrace.”

All of this is sound advice. But remember that the big change is the mental shift. Knowing that you don’t have to get fatter as you get older. You know that your metabolism slows a bit, but that doesn’t mean you have to put on a lot of weight.

Weight gain as you get older is not just about vanity either. Weighing more has a detrimental effect on your health, but you also need to watch the circumference of your waist.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburg found:

“Women who experience an accelerated accumulation of abdominal fat during menopause are at greater risk of heart disease, even if their weight stays steady, according to a new analysis. The study — based on a quarter century of data collected on hundreds of women — indicates that measuring waist circumference during preventive health care appointments for midlife women could be a better early indicator of heart disease risk than weight or BMI.”