Many people call a truce with the battle of the bulge at a certain age, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When you’re older than 60, being a little overweight may be beneficial because being underweight increases the risk of malnutrition, osteoporosis and falls.
But you don’t want to be carrying too much excess weight. “If you’re very overweight or obese, you’re more likely to develop chronic diseases earlier in life,” says Steven Heymsfield, a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. And obesity makes it more difficult for older people to do daily activities.
Weight gain with age is common. “Your metabolism gradually slows down,” Heymsfield says. Sarcopenia, a decrease in muscle tissue that occurs with age, is a likely cause — but not the only one.
“People generally become less active as they get older, even more so if they have orthopedic or other painful health issues,” Heymsfield says. “When you’re not burning as many calories but still eating the same amount, you gradually gain weight.”
Prescription medications may also play a role. Psychotropic drugs — particularly certain classes of antidepressants and antipsychotics — and corticosteroids (often prescribed for inflammatory diseases) can lead to substantial weight gain.
You probably don’t have to lose as much weight as you think you do to improve your health. Simply maintaining a healthy weight — or dropping just a few pounds, if necessary — can be worthwhile. “Losing just 5 to 8 percent of your weight [about 11 to 17 pounds for a 220-pound person] improves your health and how well you function,” Heymsfield says. The effect can be considerable. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who lost 7 percent of their weight had a 58 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
To get the scale to budge, you can’t just cut calories. “Unless it’s coupled with an exercise program, weight loss will result in muscle loss,” Heymsfield explains. That’s why the best strategy combines calorie-burning, muscle-building exercise and diet changes. In a study in the journal Obesity, half the people who took a similar approach kept off at least 5 percent of the weight they lost for eight years.
“Changing a diet has to be something you can stick with long-term because if you return to the way you were eating before, you’ll likely gain back the weight,” says Denise K. Houston, an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. To eat more healthfully, follow the MyPlate for Older Adults guidelines from Tufts University: Half of every meal should be fruits and vegetables; one-quarter should be grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread; and one-quarter should be protein (some of it dairy). Use oils and other fats such as butter sparingly.
Next, try to eat fewer calories and burn more through exercise. Simple changes such as cutting out sugary drinks, switching from whole to 1 percent or nonfat dairy products, and making half of every meal fruit or vegetables helps. Walking for half an hour torches about 140 calories, depending on your weight. “If you create a 500-calorie deficit every day, you should lose about one to two pounds a week,” Houston says. Women need at least 1,200 calories per day; men, at least 1,300. “When you don’t eat enough calories,” she says, “it’s tough to get all the nutrients your body needs.”