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Ditch The Excuses And Bad Choices And Combat Weight Gain

02/05/2016 11:37 EST | Updated 02/05/2017 05:12 EST
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Woman showing fat belly. Pink tape measure

As we grow older, many of us find it harder to avoid or undo unwanted weight gain. This is such a widespread phenomenon, it is almost taken for granted that aging and weight problems go hand in hand. However, while there are objective reasons for such a connection, they are by no means the whole story.

The human body undergoes constant changes throughout life that include its shape. These are natural and unavoidable, regardless of genetic makeup, diet or lifestyle. We can slow down some of the process, but only to a certain extent. Still, it is important to understand the multiple factors that play a role in our aging and counteract them as best we can.

Genetic makeup

Like many of our individual characteristics, the appearance of our body is influenced by our genes. Numerous studies have shown how genetic components factor in our response to food intake, physical activity, lifestyle choices and health risks. But experts have also maintained that despite of this predetermination we can still exercise a great deal of control and alter outcomes.

In other words, heredity is not necessarily destiny. This becomes clearer as we mature. A lifetime of habits and behaviour will likely have the greatest impact on how well we fare, more than what we started out with.

Changing metabolic rates

It is a popular belief that slowing of the metabolism -- the biochemical process by which the body converts calories into energy it needs to function -- is one of the main culprits of age-related weight gain. Yes, there is some truth to that, but scientists say it really plays only a relatively small part when it comes to weight issues.

Beginning at around the age of 25, the average person's metabolic rate declines by between 5 and 10 per cent per decade. It means that as the years pass, fewer and fewer calories are needed to stay within a healthy weight range, and everything beyond may lead to overweight.

The good news is that the effects of a slowing metabolism can be mitigated. Again, behavioral adjustments can make a big difference. It is a simple equation: As the body's needs change, so should one's eating and lifestyle choices. Cutting back on portion sizes and getting regular exercise are important proactive steps to start with. (More on this later on.)

Loss of muscle mass

Another reason for a lessening metabolism is loss of muscle mass. Age-related sarcopenia, as the process is called, begins typically in a person's mid-to-late 30s, in part because of sedentary lifestyle -- and working conditions. It can continue at a rate of 3 to 5 per cent per decade, depending on activity levels.

Research suggests that women lose muscle mass twice as fast as men of the same age. Because muscle is much more metabolically active than fat, it becomes increasingly difficult to control or lose weight for both gender as people grow older.

Obviously, strength training is the best counteraction one can take, combined with a healthy, balanced diet rich in lean protein.

Different kinds of fat

To successfully avoid weight gain, it is also important to understand the differences in how fat tissue accumulates in the body. Most women tend to carry additional fat primarily in the hips, thighs, and buttocks, while most men do so in the abdominal area.

Different types of fat react metabolically different as well, and some may become less active with age than others, meaning, they are harder to get rid of.

Also, excessive abdominal fat, or belly fat, can be the source of a number of serious health risks, including diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer, and should therefore be avoided as much as possible. Reduced calorie intake and regular exercise are the most logical remedies.

Lifestyle changes

Following a healthy diet and exercise regimen is obviously crucial for successful weight management at any time in life, and ever more so in later years. But these can only do so much. Other important ingredients are stress management and also getting enough sleep.

Chronic stress and sleep deprivation have routinely been identified as contributing factors to overeating and use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

In other words, to escape the traps of unhealthy aging, it is imperative to look at the larger picture and pay close attention to all our actions. As we age, there is less and less room for compromise -- or shall we say excuses. The best way is to start a health-promoting diet and lifestyle regimen as early as possible, and not deviate much from it, regardless how hard that may seem at times.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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