Words: Dr Lauretta Ihonor
It’s a fact that some things get harder with age: reading fine print, partying all night, and keeping weight off. Even if you stayed slim with little effort throughout your teens and 20s, moving into that notorious third decade of life can bring a slow but steady creep in weight gain.
If you’ve noticed the number on the scales increasing, no matter how hard you try to stay in shape, there’s a reason for that. Human physiology and scientific research has shown that gaining weight becomes easier with age and losing it becomes harder after 30.
- Muscle mass falls by approximately 0.5lbs per year after the age of 30. This is the results of a natural process called sarcopenia, and it's more dramatic if you don't do any exercise. While sarcopenia is traditionally associated with old age, studies show it actually begins as early as 30. And losing a little muscle mass each year is bad news for your waistline because muscle cells use a lot of energy in their daily function. This means that the more muscle you have, the more energy your body uses at rest. The end result is a faster metabolism and slimmer body.
- As life pressures increase, so does the production of the stress hormone cortisol. This matters because cortisol encourages the production of insulin – the fat-storing hormone. While it’s true that stress doesn’t happen exclusively after 30, it’s usually that decade of life that delivers an onslaught of serious stressors e.g. kids, mortgages, deaths, divorce and redundancies.
- Decades of eating a less-than-healthy diet can lead to the pre-diabetic condition: insulin resistance. Your body releases the hormone insulin in response to the food you eat. But years of flooding your body with sugary treats can leave your cells unable to properly take up sugar from the bloodstream when insulin is released. To counter this, your pancreas starts to routinely produce way more of the hormone than normal when you eat. Unfortunately for your waistline, insulin is a fat storing hormone, which means the more insulin released by your pancreas, the more fat-storage occurs in your body.
- Yo-yo dieting in your teens and 20s. The number one reason crash diets are no good for your weight in the long-term is that your body starts to break down muscle when you cut calories. When calories are scarce your body is forced to use its own muscle tissue for fuel. This loss of muscle mass slows down your metabolism and makes it harder for you to burn fat. So if you've spent many years jumping from one crash diet to another, it's likely you've been inadvertently destroying your inbuilt metabolism booster - your muscle mass.
The good news is that you don’t have to settle for creeping weight gain as an inevitable part of ageing. There are a few things you can do to get the scale moving again.
- Strength train 2-3 times a week. This is a quick and easy way to increase your lean muscle mass. And if you stick to a 20-30 minute session and aim to get your muscles burning a little each session, you'll boost muscle mass without visibly bulking up. The muscle burn felt during resistance exercise is a sign of muscle damage, and your muscles will get a little bigger as they repair themselves after each training session, especially if you keep your protein intake up after your workout and in general.
- Get more sleep. The simplest way to drive down your cortisol levels is to get 7-8 hours sleep every night. Studies, like this, show that doing this will help to bring down your general cortisol levels, which will help reduce your levels of fat-storing insulin.
- Stop crash dieting. Have you been dieting for years and continue to do so? That’s a big clue that diets don't work. If they did, you wouldn't still be dieting! However, after years of continuous dieting, it can be hard to know what a normal diet looks like. If you’re about to start a new eating plan, but are unsure if it is a crash diet, look at the overall amount of calories you’ll be eating each day. If you’re expected to eat less than 60-70% of your usual calorie intake, it’s a crash diet.
- Keep refined sugar and processed foods to a minimum. That’s because those delicious cookies, puddings, pastries and soft drinks, that magically make a bad day better are very high in calories, sugar and simple carbohydrates that not only encourage fat gain, but also set the process of insulin resistance in motion.
Dr Lauretta Ihonor is a London-based weight loss and nutrition specialist. She graduated from University College London with a Medical Degree and second degree in Nutritional Genetics. Dr Ihonor specialises in helping women lose weight and take control of their body and diet using her unique scientific approach. Visit drlaurettaihonor.com for science-backed tips on creating your healthiest body without fads.