By Darcie Fisher, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent
Every annual physical starts the same way – a stop by the dreaded scale. As both men and women get older it seems inevitable that a few extra pounds show up each year. While gaining three to five pounds might not seem like a big deal, it sure can be if it’s become an annual occurrence. We talked with Tufts Medical Center Clinical Bariatric Dietitian Jillian Reece, RD, LDN, CSOWM, to find out what’s behind weight gain as we age and what can be done to keep your weight at a healthy level.
1. Why do we gain weight as we age?
Our basal metabolic rate is the rate at which our body uses energy while at rest to keep vital body functions going. “Aging is one of the biggest factors effecting basal metabolic rate. Unfortunately, it does slow down year after year, which in turn, means most of us do see the number on the scale creeping up in the wrong direction due to a decrease in muscle mass,” Reece explained. If muscle mass is declining, you can’t stick to the same old diet. Your caloric intake must decrease or else the number on the scale will go up.
2. Is it a bigger problem for women than men?
Both sexes gain weight as we get older. “It’s not necessarily a bigger problem, rather a different problem,” said Reece. “Both men and women tend to put on weight in their mid-section and this increase in weight is a risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
3. How does menopause affect women and weight gain?
Some studies suggest that aging and possibly menopause can change the distribution of fat in our bodies to a more centralized location – in other words, our tummies! “There are still many unanswered questions about menopause and weight gain,” said Reece. “Is weight gain more of a natural reflection of aging, which also falls around the time of menopause?” Reece does believe that sleep disturbance at this point in a woman’s life can have a major impact on stress levels, appetite, exercise and energy.
4. How much of a health problem is gaining 3-5 pounds annually?
“That’s a tricky question,” said Reece. “No one is happy about carrying around an extra 5 pounds, but it can create health issues.’ Reece explains that extra weight – especially in the mid-section – can lead to an increase in blood sugar as well as blood pressure. “Generally, having more fat is also associated with having low-grade inflammation throughout your body,” said Reece. “And over time that inflammation can trigger related issues such as diabetes and problems with your kidneys.” In addition, muscular-skeletal issues, such as pain in your joints, are associated with being overweight.
5. Why is it harder to lose weight as we age?
“Our bodies simply don’t respond the way they used to when it comes to changes in diet and exercise,” said Reece. “The ability to exercise hard, recover quickly and the desire to do so, decreases in many people as they get older.”
6. What strategies do you recommend as we age to lose those extra pounds?
“It’s important to have a consistent diet as you age,” said Reece. “You shouldn’t skip meals. A consistent eating pattern means you won’t have fluctuations in hunger.” Reece says it’s also crucial to get enough protein in your diet to keep hunger pains at bay. She tells her patients their breakfast should include protein such as yogurt or eggs, and for some, a protein shake is appropriate.
Other tips from Reece:
- Stay hydrated – and be smart about what you’re drinking. Water is key!
- Avoid ultra-processed foods
- Include light weights in your exercise routine to preserve muscle mass – cardio alone isn’t enough
It’s also possible that an underlying medical condition is behind weight gain in some people. Issues with your thyroid, as well as sleep apnea, are just two examples of health problems which can be responsible for weight gain.
If you’ve drawn a line in the sand (or on the scale) when it comes to your weight, and you can’t get back below it, you should contact your doctor or consider making an appointment with a dietitian for a plan specific for you.
Posted January 2020
The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.