You don’t have to gain weight as you age.
All the body negatives that we associate with midlife — an expanding midsection, softer muscles, general physical decline — aren’t inevitable. They’re avoidable, and even reversible.
Yet the vast majority of us struggle with weight gain in middle age. The standard weight-loss tricks that worked earlier in life no longer keep the weight off. We may be eating healthfully and exercising just as much, but we still gain weight. Why?
What's in the Book?
The Whole Body Reset includes:
- Scores of recipes and snack suggestions
- A guide to dining out
- A 10-day jump-start plan
- A fitness plan that requires no equipment
Order it at aarp.org/wholebodyreset or at your favorite bookshop or online store.
As the health editor for AARP The Magazine, I was tasked with solving this puzzle. After months of digging into up-to-the-minute weight-loss science (with a focus on research conducted on people our age), I created a program to halt midlife weight gain and muscle loss, and tested it on more than 100 volunteers. The result: Our test panelists lost as much as 22 pounds in just 12 weeks. And now that research has been collected in The Whole Body Reset, a diet program made specifically for people at midlife and beyond.
The answer to later-life weight gain largely lies in protein timing — eating protein in the proper amounts throughout the day. This triggers older bodies to spurn fat gain and hold on to lean muscle tissue. This approach, coupled with plenty of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and healthy fats, can help older people not only reshape their bodies but reshape their lives.
This eating program isn’t low-carb or low-fat, doesn’t require calorie counting or periods of food restriction, and doesn’t eliminate any particular food category. But once you know how to do it and incorporate it into your daily life, it can stop, and even reverse, age-related weight gain and muscle loss. It can even significantly reduce your risk of many of the chronic diseases of aging, enhancing the overall health of both your body and your brain.
What makes this plan different
Traditional weight-loss diets trigger our bodies to grow fatter in three ways.
- By restricting calories, a traditional diet sends the message that your body needs to be prepared to live through times of famine. Once your body receives that signal, it turns down your resting metabolism — the number of calories your body burns while you’re binge-watching TV shows, sleeping or sitting at the computer. So what you’ve done in reality is reduce the number of calories your body burns every day, setting yourself up for future weight gain.
- When we go on a diet, we don’t just lose fat. Most of us lose muscle, too, and muscle burns more calories than fat. Once we’re into our mid-40s or so, muscle loss is already a problem we must battle daily. Because muscle plays a huge role in preventing belly fat, the more muscle we lose, the more belly fat we’ll gain.
- Perhaps more important, most diets are not built for people in midlife or beyond. Our bodies are different now — with rising protein needs and a reduced ability to extract nutrients from food. And we don’t eat enough fiber.
Resetting the older body
Studies show that individuals who increase their protein intake to 25-30 grams per meal could slow the descent into muscle loss and weight gain. When we do, researchers say, our bodies respond to exercise as though we were decades younger. (Before starting any new diet and exercise regime, be sure to check with your medical professional.)
This isn’t a controversial point or some sort of far-out idea, by the way. It’s consistent with the findings of the Prot-Age Study Group, an association of gerontologists and nutritionists. Its study reaffirmed that older people should eat about 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day — or roughly 0.5 to 0.6 grams per pound. But it also concluded that 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal was crucial for older people to reach their anabolic threshold — the point at which muscle mass can be maintained.
But don’t get the idea that this is some sort of high-protein diet. The average person following this plan won’t eat much more protein — if any more — on a given day than he or she does already. But what will happen is that the timing and concentration of that protein is going to change
The only thing you really need to do on the The Whole Body Reset plan is to make sure you hit certain protein and fiber numbers while eating healthy food. The secret behind this program is to identify the nutrients your body needs more of and find simple, delicious ways to fit more of them into your day.
Eat 25 to 30 grams of quality protein at each meal
The typical American diet looks like a tiny bit of protein at breakfast (milk in your cereal, maybe an egg or two), a bit more at lunch (a turkey sandwich, perhaps) and then a huge infusion of protein (a steak or a couple of pork chops) at dinner. All told, we may consume an average of about 90 grams of protein a day, which is roughly what we need. But about two-thirds of that typically comes at dinnertime. Our bodies need 25 to 30 grams of protein — generally 25 grams for women, 30 for men — at each meal to keep the process of protein biosynthesis cranking along.
Overeating protein at dinner doesn’t help; our bodies may only be able to use about 30 grams of protein at a time when at rest.
Top foods: Fish and shellfish, eggs (in moderation), poultry, lean meat, combinations of grains and legumes that supply complete proteins, and protein shakes.
Enjoy fortified dairy foods 2 to 3 times a day
Yes, you would like cheese on that. And whipped cream? Go for it. As a complete protein source, dairy is hard to beat. And as we age, the benefits of milk, cheese, yogurt and other forms of dairy only multiply.
That’s due in part to dairy’s protein punch — it’s particularly high in an essential muscle-building compound called leucine. But dairy delivers many other nutrients, particularly calcium, magnesium and vitamin D — all nutrients that our bodies have difficulty absorbing from food as we age, and all of which help to keep us healthy and strong. In one study of older women, consumption of more milk, yogurt and cheese was associated with greater muscle mass as well as greater grip strength.
Top foods: Milk, yogurt and kefir fortified with vitamin D, cheese, cottage cheese and whey-based protein smoothies
Eat colorful fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks
Oh, sure, you knew this part was coming, right? But for good reason: Any diet plan that doesn’t include heaping portions of produce should immediately be filed away as a snake-oil cure.
While all vegetables are good for you — assuming they’re not coated with breading or deep-fried in oil — it helps to think of dark, leafy greens as the alpha veggies. Each day should include at least one helping — a small side salad or a half-cup serving of cooked green vegetables — ensuring that you have a dietary source of the B vitamin folate. Folate also plays a crucial role in battling dementia, hearing loss and depression in mature adults.
In a study of postmenopausal women, those who were overweight averaged 12 percent less folate in their blood than normal-weight women; those who were obese had 22 percent less.
Top foods: All colorful vegetables and fruits, but especially dark, leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, arugula, cabbage, collards, watercress), red and orange vegetables (carrots, squash, red peppers, tomatoes), berries, tree fruits (apples, pears, cherries) and citrus (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes)
Aim for at least 5 grams of fiber at each meal
Chances are, you don’t eat enough fiber. In fact, the average American eats about 15 grams of fiber a day — that’s about the amount you’d find in any of these:
- a cup of black beans
- two cups of bran flakes
- three oat bran muffins
- five bananas
- 10 carrots
- 13 cups of popcorn
And that’s only about half of what experts believe we need to eat daily to ensure good health and a leaner, fitter body. One study looked at the dietary habits of middle-aged women; when the researchers followed up 20 months later, they found that every additional gram of fiber the subjects ate correlated with a half-pound less in total weight and a quarter-percent less fat.
Top foods: Whole wheat pasta, bread, tortillas and crackers; oats; brown rice; beans; vegetables such as potatoes (with the skins on), brussels sprouts, peas, broccoli and corn; and fruits
Enjoy more healthy fats
If you’ve been trying to lose weight by eating less fat, we have a word of advice: Stop. In fact, there are three types of healthy fats you should be enjoying more of.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats — found in salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna — have been shown to play a role in reducing belly fat and in promoting muscle preservation in older adults.
- Fruit and nut oils. Olive oil is the go-to here. Studies have shown that extra-virgin olive oil may reduce dementia risk by flushing out the proteins that gum up communications channels between brain cells.
- Dairy fats. Full-fat dairy has been linked to a reduced risk of obesity. That may be partly because satisfying creamy fats reduce the desire to snack later on.
Top foods: Seafood, oils (olive, safflower, peanut, sesame), nuts, seeds, avocado and olives
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Don’t drink your calories (or chemicals)
A significant source of empty calories is beverages. Soda, sweetened iced teas, specialty coffee drinks, sports drinks, oversize smoothies and shakes, even fruit juices can be loaded with sugar. Avoid calorie-laced drinks as well as diet sodas, which have been shown to increase appetite and, in some studies, have been linked to health risks.
Top calorie-free drinks: Water (still or sparkling), unsweetened tea and coffee
One Day on the Whole Body Reset
Kale and hearty smoothie: 1 cup 1-percent milk, ½ cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt, 1 cup frozen strawberries, half a small banana, ⅓ cup oats, ½ cup fresh kale, chopped. Blend all ingredients.
25g protein, 7g fiber, 374 calories
1 apple with 2 tablespoons peanut butter
7g protein, 7g fiber, 270 calories
3½ ounces tuna, chunk light, with 1 tablespoon mayo, 2 slices whole wheat toast; plus 1 cup of cherries
35g protein, 8g fiber, 412 calories
Steak in chimichurri sauce: Use steak cubes marinated in chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Include chunks of onion, orange bell pepper, and baby bella or button mushrooms on skewers. A chimichurri sauce includes cilantro, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, chili flakes, water, apple cider vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.
Nutty sweet potatoes: Baked with olive oil, coconut oil, nutmeg and cinnamon. Dressing includes orange juice and zest, lemon juice and zest, ginger, honey, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Topped with hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds.
Total: 42g protein, 6g fiber, 588 calories
The Whole Body Reset contains detailed recipes for these and other dishes.
Copyright 2022 by AARP. Adapted with permission from The Whole Body Reset: Your Weight-Loss Plan for a Flat Belly, Optimum Health, and a Body You’ll Love — at Midlife and Beyond by Stephen Perrine with Heidi Skolnik, published by Simon & Schuster Inc.