Secrets to Maintaining a Healthy Metabolism as We Age
By: Dr. Zena Logan May 8, 2020
“I used to be able to eat like a horse but now I gain five pounds if I even think about dessert.” This is a common lament many of us have uttered when we realize our metabolisms are slowing with age.
The metabolism has long been the supposed culprit of our age-related expanding waistlines. Are our metabolisms ticking time bombs of waistline expansion or is there something we can do about it?
The truth is, our metabolisms do slow as we age. Beginning around age 20, our muscle mass naturally begins to decrease. The good in that is that it’s not our faults! Yay! The bad news is that we’ve hit our metabolic peaks before the ink has fully dried on our high school diplomas.
By the time we’re thirty years old, we lose 3-8% of our muscle mass per decade. Yikes! But we’re not powerless. There are things we can do to improve our metabolisms and there are things we can do to increase our muscle mass.
First, let’s talk about what, exactly, metabolism is. “Metabolism” refers to the energy we burn in order to sustain our body’s functioning. Just breathing burns calories, which is great news. And yes, meditative, or yoga, breathing does burn more calories than regular breathing. Not enough to take you down a pant size but it’s something.
Our brains burn a lot of calories too (up to 20% of our resting metabolic rate!), as does our stomach as it digests food.
All of our organs are busy burning calories as they do their jobs. Our muscles are burning calories whether we’re using them or not.
More muscle, of course, does mean we’re burning more calories regardless of how much we’re using them. Fat burns calories too, but not nearly as much. And the idea that we can burn more calories by consuming certain foods like green tea with ECGC or hot foods like pepper, is mostly a fallacy because the gains are negligible. It’s about on par with how many extra calories you’re burning as you inhale deeply to calm the rage you feel at your muscle mass for deserting you because you’re getting old.
In recent years, several studies have been released that show that it’s not just about age when it comes to the speed of your metabolism and the girth of your midsection. It’s also about what you’re doing with your body.
A healthy, yet sedentary, twenty year old will burn far fewer calories per day at rest than a healthy, active, and strong seventy year old will.
Despite the claims of a million different diets, the root cause of weight gain and loss is “calories in versus calories out”. Promises that you’ll be able to burn a lot of calories, or to burn a specific type of fat while you lay on the couch are, at best, lies and, at worst, dangerous to your health.
There are three ways to stave off the middle-age spread and they are: 1) cardiovascular exercise, 2) weight-training exercise, and 3) eating a healthy diet.
A healthy diet consists of eating whole food calories that will nourish your body and signal your brain that you are full and satisfied, and eating the same number of them, or fewer, than you’re burning. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in until you reach your goal.
It’s really just that simple. And it’s that hard. Proper diet and exercise take some effort. On a regular basis. We have to have the ability (are we healthy enough?) and the desire to build and maintain muscle through weight-bearing exercise and cardiovascular activity.
Weight loss is one of my specialties as a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM) so I know a good bit about it. And I know a lot about nutrition.
A lot of Chinese Medicine is herbal medicine. Herbal medicine is based in nutrition. The definition of nutrition is, “the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.” Herbal medicine is the consumption of plants, animals, and minerals to improve health and treat disease. What, and how, you eat foods can keep you well or make you sick.
Take a powerful Chinese herb, Ma Huang, for example. You may have heard of it because, in 2003, it was banned in the United States after a number of people died when taking it as a weight loss supplement.
Ma Huang is a plant – ephedra stem. It’s been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat asthma, wheezing, edema (swelling), and to promote urination. It treats allergies, its antibacterial and antiviral, and has a host of other great qualities that make it a good choice when treating some conditions.
Use of this herb became a problem when it was marketed as a diet aid and people were told to take it in high doses. It caused heart attacks in some and over 100 people died.
How we use food makes it medicine or makes it poison.
Sugar is another great example. Sugar’s most well known property is that it’s sweet. Sweet things harmonize the body, they aid in digestion. Certain sugars are also Chinese herbs and are used in many Chinese herbal formulas. Too much sugar, though, is toxic to the body. It causes inflammation, which can become chronic over time. It also causes weight gain.
When I see patients for any reason - weight loss, pain management, anxiety, or for something else, it’s likely that some form of movement is going to be part of the treatment plan we put together. For some patients, including many older people, we first have to treat the pain and illness that is keeping them from being able to move freely. It’s hard to exercise if you’re too sick or in too much pain to get off the couch.
As soon as possible into our treatments together, I encourage people to start moving as much as possible. That often starts as a walk around the block.
Our bodies are a ‘move it or lose it’ commodity. Once we stop moving, it becomes harder and harder to start moving again.
Anything we do, be it learning a new language, or starting a work out routine of any kind, is hardest on Day 1. As we get stronger, it gets easier, until it becomes second nature. When we stop and have to start again, we’re back to ye olde Day 1. And it’s hard again. The older we get the harder the starts are.
Once you’ve overcome the challenge of starting an exercise regimen, it’s time to make it a habit. We need to build our exercise routines up to the point where they’re servicing our goals. Some of those goals might include losing weight and being more fit for the sake of our health and to make aging easier. Then, ideally, we want to keep that as a part of our lives so we stay fit into old age.
The benefits of staying active are not just reflected in stronger metabolisms and smaller waistlines. Our health in general benefits from movement. Here are a few of the ways:
• Improved immune system. Being active boosts our immune systems. Bonus points if you’re active outdoors. The sun makes our bodies produce Vitamin D, which is its own immune stimulant.
• Better processing of toxins. Our lymphatic system does not have a pump to move fluids the way our heart pumps our blood throughout our bodies. Our lymphatic system moves only two ways: 1) Massage. And yes, definitely get massage on a regular basis if you can, regardless of how active you are. 2) Exercise. When our muscles move, they move the lymph fluid and help us process out the metabolic waste that is otherwise just sitting there, accumulating.
• When we’re active and in better shape we have more energy. At the end of the day, we’re more tired (in the right way) when we go to bed so we sleep better. An active lifestyle may not altogether relieve a person of issues like insomnia, but it can definitely help.
• You’re this far into this article so I know you get this one: you’re burning more calories when you’re active than when you’re not.
• Physical activity alleviates pain.
Exercise alone is going to get you pretty far and you can stop there if that’s enough to achieve your goals. But if you want to really beat the battle of the bulge, you want to make sure you include proper nutrition.
Junk food does cause weight gain. This is because junk food is nutritionally deficient and doesn’t satisfy actual hunger. This makes us eat more than we should, consuming more calories than we can burn. Anything processed, fried, or pre-packaged is not your best friend, though it may seem to comfort you in the moment.
Eating anything mindlessly, like in front of a computer or TV screen, is going to cause you to eat more than you would if you were looking at it as you ate. If you’ve ever sat through a movie with a bathtub-sized tub of popcorn and then looked amazed as the credits rolled and you realized you ate the whole thing, you know what I’m talking about.
What you eat depending on the time of year matters. We need more calories in winter because keeping our bodies warm burns more calories. That’s less true than it was before we had central heat, but it is still true. And you need fewer calories in summer when it’s hot. If you look at nature, you will see that it’s in sync with our needs. Heartier vegetables like squashes, pumpkins, and root veggies are ripe in fall when it gets cooler. Water-filled fruits, like watermelon, that cool us down and hydrate us ripen in summer. It’s as if all we need to do is look to nature for what we should be doing. But that’s a topic for another article.
Last, when you eat matters. You may have heard about intermittent fasting, which is very popular at the moment. This is one diet craze I can get behind.
The idea behind intermittent fasting is that you only eat during a certain window and you fast, or consume nothing but water and clear liquids, the rest of the day. Some people go all out and only eat 4 hours out of every 24, consuming nothing but water and tea for 20 hours a day. For most of us, that’s not realistic given the demands of our schedules and lives. I usually recommend 12/12, which is a twelve-hour eating window every day with twelve hours off.
The twelve hours of fasting include the time we sleep at night. I suggest 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as the best eating window, if that works for you.
The reason for that time frame is because you don’t want to eat for a few hours before you go to bed so your body is no longer actively digesting food when you go to sleep. Most of us go to bed (on average) around 10 p.m. That gives our bellies three hours to finish working on dinner before we rest.
When we’re sleeping, our body goes into rest and repair mode. It fixes all the wear and tear of daily living, it heals illnesses, and it cleans up and repairs our brains and tissues. If you’re also digesting food, your resources are divided to do both of those things at once. Giving your body a rest from digesting food while you sleep has the added benefit of boosting your immune system and eradicating inflammation. Chronic inflammation prevents proper and complete digestion of food and leads to illness and pain. Pain keeps up from moving well or frequently. So, intermittent fasting helps you beat that creeping waistline into submission.
With all of that said, know that you are in control of this aspect of the aging process. While we can’t slow the depletion of muscle mass as the birthday candles add up, we can control how much muscle we have by choosing to stay fit. You will never be so old that you can’t build muscle.
You don’t need to do a triathlon to stay healthy either. Moving as much as you can and making healthy food choices on a daily basis will help you stay your healthiest self.
One last word on diet and exercise – it’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to be militant about it and you don’t have to forsake enjoyment of life. Healthy food can also be delicious. Did you know that raw cacao is a superfood? That’s chocolate! If you can find, or create, recipes that keep that cacao from mixing with refined sugars and flours, you’ll be well on your way to making healthy foods that taste great. Then go for a walk and tell your neighbors all about it.
When it comes to exercise, you should do something active every day. That could be going up and down your stairs ten times. It could be a walk around the block. It could be an hour on a treadmill. Anything that raises your heart rate is beneficial. If you fail to do something physical one day, no big deal. Start again the next day. Or the day after. Be kind to yourself and don’t quit.
Proper health requires maintenance – a little something every day. That’s why short-term diets or marathon sessions with a trainer are bound to fail – the body will return to its previous state when the good eating and good exercise are taken away. So keep up the good work and praise yourself lavishly, even when all you do on some days are a few arm curls with the trash bags on the way to dumping them in the can.
Here’s a little more information on healthy eating and a delicious snack recipe to get you started:
• The proper ratio of consumption for a healthy diet consists of 50% protein, 15% fat, and 35% carbohydrates (carbs). Studies on the percentages varies, so there are different opinions on this. However, a ratio that has 35-50% protein, 20-40% carbs, and 15-35% fats is acceptable to most nutritionists.
• Fat is not the bad guy it’s been made out to be. Healthy fats are the building blocks of our brains, they lubricate our joints, and they are a good source of energy.
• Protein does not have to be from animal sources (good news for vegetarians!). A few good plant-based sources of protein include lentils, chickpeas, almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, potatoes, broccoli, kale, mushrooms, and sprouted grains like barley, wheat, millet, and spelt.
Here’s my recipe for chocolate banana bread. It has no refined sugar, no flour and it includes protein (eggs, peanuts, or almonds). And it tastes great.
If you want to sneak something healthy into your kids’ diets that they will love, look no further.
Chocolate Banana Bread
This recipe is best made with ripe bananas. Once baked, the bread is good for 2-5 days, depending on how ripe those bananas were!
Preheat oven to 400.
I use a Vitamix to blend this, you can also use a bowl and hand mixer if you like.
Ingredients (this is for one small batch, I usually triple it so it lasts longer.)
1 tbsp vanilla
1/4 tsp of baking soda (I also add a dash of baking powder)
1 pinch salt
3 tbsp. honey or real maple syrup (I add a little less syrup than that)
1/2 cup peanut butter (I’ve also used almond at times)
1 tbsp. maca powder (optional)
1 1/2 tbsp. cacao powder (not cocoa powder, I use organic cacao)*
1 tsp. cinnamon (add more if you really like cinnamon).
Blend until smooth, pour into a greased baking pan (I use coconut oil spray to grease my pans).
I bake triple this recipe for about 20-25 minutes.
7-9 minutes should be sufficient for a batch of the size listed here, or if you’re making muffins.
The banana bread is done when a toothpick or knife come out clean.
* Cacao is a superfood because it’s rich in iron, magnesium, zinc, and antioxidants like flavonoids, which benefit the heart and can reduce cholesterol levels. Cacao can also help reduce chronic inflammation in the body.
The difference between cacao and cocoa is that the former is raw and the latter is a heated (usually roasted), processed version of cacao. It’s still healthy, but not quite as good for you.
Last, if you need help to overcome the obstacles keeping you from moving freely and without pain, see your doctor or your acupuncturist. We’re here to help you. My best days at work are when patients tell me they are back to doing their favorite activities without pain.
Health is always a rewarding goal. Thanks for reading and cheers to your longevity and health!