Whether you’ve battled the bulge for what seems like forever — or just since your last birthday — it’s true that age can have a lot to do with the number on the scale. As with crow’s-feet and varicose veins, you’re simply more susceptible to gaining weight once you hit the big 5-0. And it’s not your imagination: It also becomes increasingly more challenging to shed those pounds once they’ve settled around your hips.
“The two big reasons people tend to gain weight as they get older are loss of muscle mass and decreased activity,” explains Caroline Apovian, M.D., a weight-loss specialist at Boston University Medical Center. People experience a 5 to 10 percent loss of muscle mass each decade after age 50, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. As a result, your resting metabolic rate declines by an average of 2 to 3 percent every decade.
And this means you can be eating the exact same amount that you did at 40 — not a morsel more — and still gain weight.
Becoming more sedentary with age can also skew the equation, especially if you begin to develop arthritis or other joint issues that restrict activity. “As we get older, we spend less time running around and physical activity decreases,” Apovian points out. “But as you get older, if you don’t use your muscles, you’ll lose them.”
And while these facts are sobering, there’s plenty you can do to take control. “You’re not doomed to failure! I’m 60, and I have more muscle on my body than I did when I was 30,” Apovian says with pride.
It's true that few of us may have the time or energy to follow Apovian’s grueling workout schedule (she rises at 5 a.m. most days to either swim for an hour or run six miles on her treadmill), but we can follow her advice, as well as that of other leading obesity specialists, on how to fit into our jeans once we enter our sixth decade and beyond.
Pile on the protein
“Protein supplementation can help build back muscle mass, which reverses the decline in metabolism,” explains Apovian. She recommends making sure that between 30 and 40 percent of your daily calories come from protein, depending on your body weight. (Imagine a lean piece of meat or fish taking up one third of your plate, and you get the idea.) By contrast, the average American gets about 16 percent of his or her food intake from protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You’ll also build more muscle if you spread your protein intake out evenly throughout the day. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming an equal amount of protein at all three meals is linked to more muscle strength in people over age 67. To even out your intake, try adding an egg or yogurt to your breakfast, a glass of milk or a handful of nuts to your lunch, and scaling back on your protein source at dinner.