Many people, who may have maintained their weight easily in their 20s and 30s, start to feel more challenged when they pass the big 4-0, and that’s not surprising since you begin to lose lean muscle mass and experience far more hormone fluctuations at midlife and beyond. This begs the question: As the years begin creeping up, are you doomed to that middle-age spread and spare tire?
The oft-repeated golden rule of weight loss — to lose weight, you must maintain a calorie deficit — can feel tougher to employ when you’re older, according to Eliza Kingsford, psychotherapist and author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss.” “As we age, our bodies start to change metabolically,” she says. “However, this doesn’t mean you are doomed to gain weight or are unable to lose weight as you round 40. The keys to success lie in consistency and mindfulness.”
Maybe you’ll need to be more focused and dedicated to your goals than when you were younger, but that doesn’t mean those goals aren’t reachable.
Here are some tips to consider as you age:
The good news about getting older is you’ve had time to understand how nutritional changes affect your health, notes Kingsford. You’ve gained experience about the impact of certain food choices, and now it’s time to put that knowledge to use.
“I won’t sugarcoat it, you need to be more mindful when you’re older about what you’re feeding your body and how you’re moving,” she says. “As the metabolism slows with age, we can often no longer get away with some of the indulgences that our bodies used to forgive us for.”
That doesn’t mean dramatic changes, she adds, like extreme calorie reduction or hopping onto a fad diet. Instead, it should prompt you to be more conscious about your choices and patterns, including portion sizes, why you eat at certain times and why you pick the foods you do.
“This is the time to tune into any problematic behaviors that might be getting in the way of your ability to maintain or lose weight,” she says.
Our culture is set up for us to be overweight, Kingsford believes. Processed foods and fast food are highly available, even in the checkout lines at hardware stores, for example. Cooking at home is de-emphasized in favor of convenience, and portion sizes have changed significantly from even a couple decades ago.
One estimate notes that since the 1970s, the average size of foods from fast-food chains, restaurants and grocery stores has increased by 138%. Business experts have noted that this might be because when portions are bigger, they seem like a better deal, and that increases profits.
But it also increases waistlines, given the extra calories. As part of being more mindful about what you’re eating, it can be helpful to track the amount as well and realize “serving size” doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how much you should be eating.
When you’re trying to lose weight, it makes sense to cut back on calories and, in some cases, tweak your macros so you can restrict your carbohydrates, particularly those found in processed foods.
When you’re older, these methods can also backfire, says Aaron Leventhal, a NSCA-certified personal trainer and owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis. In his work with older clients, he’s seen challenges when calories and carbs get too restricted.
“Often, there’s a ‘starvation effect,’ and that tends to happen more for those over age 45 than those who are younger,” he says. “That means the body holds on to fat and seems to slow down a metabolism that’s already changing because of age.”
When you get older, your muscle mass loss causes your resting metabolic rate to decrease, changing your calorie-burning mechanism. That can be even more pronounced by a poor diet, smoking, alcohol use, sedentary behavior and genetics.
In addition to changing weight, the shift in muscle fiber can contribute to loss of balance, coordination and strength. But the good news is it’s not inevitable — and in some cases, it can even be reversed.
Resistance training performed a few times per week can not only help you regain what was lost, but can also increase bone mass, and studies have suggested it might improve sleep, help cardiovascular health, boost your mood and confer other benefits.
In addition to strategies like these, Leventhal suggests chatting with your healthcare professional about other factors that might play a factor, such as your medication usage.
In general, you’re right to think there are more challenges to losing or maintaining weight as you get older. But getting more conscious about what, when and why you’re eating — and putting some strength training into the mix — can help you age better.