Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Avoiding Weight Gain as We Age

In response to my recent post on obesity (Obesity in America - An Integral Solution), Peter (of The Buddha Diaries) asked a specific question about battling the bulge as we age:

I wonder, though, as one who has difficulty battling with the "spread" of middle age--and beyond!--how age factors in with what you have to say? I know many men who eat, well, not too unconsciously, and who exercise reasonably well but who still watch with dismay as the weight gathers around the midriff and the love handles. In my experience, the aging process makes it a whole lot harder to keep things trim. Have you any thoughts on this?

I have a lot of thoughts on this, so I will try to organize this a little bit. In essence, there are a few factors that contribute to age-related weight gain, but I am going to focus on hormones and muscle mass.


One of the down-sides of aging is that men tend to produce less testosterone each year past 25 or so. This has been termed andropause. With lower test levels, it becomes harder to keep and maintain muscle. Other side effects of low test include mood disorders (depression), heart disease, and osteoporosis. If your levels are below the normal range, many doctors will now prescribe test replacement, usually in the form of a patch or cream. This is a move in the right direction.

There are also natural ways to increase test levels, most notably a high quality tribulus terrestris supplement and/or a eurycoma longfolia supplement. The tribulus increases test levels by signaling the body (indirectly) to produce more testosterone. The eurycoma decreases sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG increases as we age, and it binds to the testosterone in our bodies rendering it inactive.

When we get our hormones tested, the doctors look at total and free testosterone. Only the free testosterone (not bound by SHBG) is active and can increase muscle mass (or libido, for that matter). So, in order to benefit from test replacement therapy of any kind, we need to reduce SHBG, which the eurycoma can do.

But there is another problem as well -- estrogen. As we gain bodyfat, our test levels will drop due to the increase in estrogen levels (the body likes homeostasis). Fat cells not only have estrogen receptors, they produce estrogen as well. The more fat we carry, the more estrogen in our bodies. Estrogen makes it harder to build and maintain muscle, and it also has been linked to a variety of cancers (especially prostate cancer).

We encounter estrogen in the environment, as well -- especially from pesticides, cleaning chemicals, auto exhaust, and some foods (notably soy). These forms of estrogen are especially potent (soy is a bit weaker, but still dangerous for men) and we need to minimize their impact on us as much as possible. There are a variety of anti-estrogen products available (some of the ones women use for breast cancer are great, but most doctors won't prescribe them for men), but I prefer resveratrol (the good chemical in red wine), which has other health benefits as well.

There are some other supplements that mildly increase test levels: green tea, olive leaf extract, and vitex agnus castus (better known simply as vitex). These are only mildly effective, although vitex has the added benefit of reducing estrogen levels a bit as well.


Another hormone that can impact our waistline as we age is insulin. All the low-carb, high-protein diets are based on the premise of reducing insulin secretion. When we eat carbohydrates, the body releases insulin to shuttle the glucose (a sugar made by the body from carbohydrates) into muscle cells (as glucose) and fat cells (in the form of triglycerides). The less insulin we produce, the less fat we store.

The problem is that as we age, we become less sensitive to insulin and so the body has to produce more to get the job done. If this gets to the extreme, we become diabetic (Type-II). And the more simple carbs we have consumed in our lives, the more likely we are to have reduced insulin sensitivity. The less insulin sensitivity we have, the more insulin we produce, and the more likely we are to have interabdominal fat -- the kind that leads to heart disease and diabetes. In men, especially, reduced insulin sensitivity manifests as belly fat. On the bright side, this can be reversed.

There are several supplements that can make us more sensitive to insulin again. The best ones are fish oil, alpha lipoic acid, cinnamon, and fiber. Fish oil has a whole spectrum of benefits, not least of which are reduced cholesterol, reduced inflammation, and better brain function -- and fish oil can also make it easier to build muscle when weight training. Alpha lipoic acid also reduces cholesterol, and it is a powerful anti-oxidant (now being used for diabetic neuropathy, Parkinson's disease, and other neuro-degenerative disorders). Cinnamon just tastes good, as well as making us more insulin sensitive, but it also can reduce cholesterol levels. And fiber -- taken with meals -- works to slow the digestion of carbs, which reduces insulin spikes. Oh, and by the way, yes, you guessed it, fiber reduces cholesterol as well.

One note here on fruit -- there are many good phytochemicals in fruit that are good for us. But fruit sugar, fructose, is not used by the body for energy when it is ingested -- it is immediately transformed by the liver into triglycerides for storage as fat. A little fruit is good as long we are not eating large amounts of carbs, but we should choose berries and fruits with more fiber content (apples, oranges, and so on).

Muscle Mass

Finally, we come to the role of muscle mass in age-related weight gain. Every year after the age of 30, in the absence of weight training, we lose one percent of our muscle mass each year. As often as not, this loss is replaced with fat gain. Muscle requires a lot more calories to keep it alive than does fat -- so the more muscle we have, the more we can eat without getting fat. This means we need to weight train at least twice a week, preferably more. And cardio does nothing to increase muscle mass, and in fact can decrease muscle mass (cardio is catabolic, meaning that it breaks down tissue, including muscle; weight training is anabolic, meaning that it builds tissue).

If you can't afford a whole mess of supplements, weigh training is your best option (and first option). Weight training increases muscle mass, makes the body more sensitive to insulin, and raises testosterone levels. It's your one-stop solution for age-related weight gain.

Many adults weight train regularly, but studies indicate that 80 percent of people who do so aren't doing enough to build muscle or even maintain the muscle they have. Most people go through the motions, barely breaking a sweat or raising their heart rate. In order to build muscle, we have to continually challenge the body to do things it hasn't done before. This doesn't mean we have lift enormous amounts of weight, however.

There are several variables that can be manipulated to keep workouts fresh and productive: the exercises we do, the order in which we do them, the amount of weight we lift, the number of sets we do, the number of repetitions we perform in each set, the speed at which we do our reps, the intensity of the workouts, the rest periods between sets, and so on. Again, the body likes homeostasis, so if we are doing the same thing in the same way each time we go to the gym, our bodies will figure it out and quit responding.

One note here for older men (past 60) -- recent research suggests that men past 60 need to supplement with creatine monohydrate in order to gain muscle mass. It seems the body needs more of this (should be essential) nutrient once we pass a certain age. Even for us younger folk, it helps for those who respond to it. It is the most widely studied sports supplement in the world, with no proven side effects. There are many other benefits as well: reduced cholesterol, better memory, a stronger heart, and recent studies are looking into creatine for treating neuro-degenerative disorders (especially Parkinson's disease). Ignore all the noise about loading creatine with fruit juice or anything else -- just add five grams to a protein shake before or after a workout.


Most of these suggestions only represent efforts in the body area of our lives. For many of us, there are also stress issues (stress increases belly fat -- but ignore those commercials for supplements -- they don't work), emotional issues, motivation and discipline, and so on. There may also be a lack of funds to afford a gym membership (although this is rarely a problem anymore -- most commercial gyms offer monthly dues under $25, and Ballys offers a $99 down and $19 a month deal with no contract).

With a little effort, a healthy diet, and some discipline, no one needs to get fatter as they get older. I just turned 40 in May -- and I am leaner and stronger than I was at 20. Certainly, I am not normal in this regard -- but there is plenty of evidence to show that it is never too late to start (unless they've nailed the lid on your coffin).

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