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Skinny Without Willpower

Thursday, June 11, 2009


How many times have we wanted to get back to the same shape we had in our teenage years? If you are one of them then read on. As we age past 30 our metabolism gradually slows down and it is considered normal to gain a pound or so every year past the age of 30. But do we have to accept this decline in metabolism or can we do something to reverse it? To tackle this problem we have to understand why our metabolism declines with age in the first place.

A note about belly fat and its correlation to the risk of coronary heart disease:
Fat mostly accumulates in the mid-section because it is body’s natural defense for protecting the vital organs from shock. Another reason is genetics. Look at some of your overweight near-relatives. Are they apple shaped? Meaning, accumulating more fat in the mid-section but otherwise slim below the hips. Or are they pear shaped? Meaning, accumulating more fat on their hips and below. Chances are you will be prone to gain fat in those same areas. Research has shown that apple shaped people are more prone to coronary heart disease (CHD) and type 2 diabetes than are pear shaped people. In a study involving 27,098 people in 52 countries (by Yusuf S et al) it was found that for every 2 inches gained in the waistline you increase your risk for CHD by 17%. In fact it has been found that the risk for CHD correlates better with waist size compared to the traditional risk metric, the body mass index (BMI). The BMI is based on height-to-weight ratio without consideration for age or athletic level. This makes is very inaccurate for kids and athletes. Even in the general population people with an otherwise healthy BMI range but with a pot belly have been found to be at a greater risk for CHD. So if you are slim everywhere else but have a bulging waistline, you are at risk.

So coming back to what causes this increase in body fat with age. Well, there are four main factors for this:

i) Declining metabolism with age: It has been found that as the body ages a person steadily loses muscle mass. This is one of the primary reasons for declining metabolic rate. We know how muscles help prevent the blood glucose from converting into fat by converting it into glycogen stores and thus keeping the metabolic rate high.

ii) Declining physical activity level: as we age and grow in our careers our lives become increasingly sedentary. The amount of physical activity is nowhere near the levels it was when we were children or even teenagers. Back then we ran a lot, walked a lot and in general played a lot of physical sports. On the other hand our intake of calories hasn’t dropped in proportion to our physical activity. So it’s anybody’s guess as to where the extra calories are going.

iii) Eating habits: When we were young we only ate when we were hungry and usually at regular times. As we get busy in the rat race we forget to eat when we are supposed to and when we do get really hungry we eat what ever is easily accessible and convenient, typically fast-food.

iv) Stress: It’s obvious that we live in stressful times, and as we age and grow in responsibilities, so does the stress in our lives. During times of stress our body releases the hormone cortisol, which is a fight-or-flight hormone secreted in the pituitary gland, just like adrenaline. It’s our body’s primal response to life threatening situations that our primate ancestors faced in the jungle that made them either fight the threat or flee from it. In today’s world even though we don’t face the same life threatening dangers our endocrine systems are wired to release cortisol during stressful situations like traffic jams, arguments with bosses and looming deadlines. Cortisol acts on the muscles and liver to convert glycogen into blood glucose so that the energy is immediately available in case we want to fight or flee the threat, and since we don’t run away from our bosses or punch them in the face during an argument (maybe some of us do) we just end up converting that excess blood glucose into fat and storing it. Stress does a lot of other harm to our bodies like raising the cholesterol levels but that’s a discussion for another time.

So in order to keep burning the excess calories and keep our weight in check we need to counteract each of the four reasons listed above. There is no reason to accept this decline in metabolic rate with age and there is nothing magical about keeping the same metabolic rate we once had as children. Here is what we can do:

i) Resistance train: The only way to permanently increase ones metabolic rate is to put on some muscle. It’s the only way our bodies will keep burning the excess calories through out the day. And we all know the only way to build muscle is to resistance train. Doing some form of body weight resistance training or weight training 2-3 times a week should do the trick and bring back our metabolic rate on track.

ii) Cardio: Another 2-3 times a week of brisk walking, running or swimming will ensure you get enough physical activity to burn those extra pounds around the waistline. Get out of your sedentary life style. Take the stairs instead of taking the elevator (unless you work in the empire state building) and if something’s within walking distance, walk instead of taking the car. It may not sound much but if done consistently over a period of time it’s enough to counteract the 1-2 lb weight gain per year.

iii) Eat smart: Make sure you eat 5-6 high quality meals during the course of the day. And remember breakfast is the most important meal of the day so have at it with a good sized portion of low GI carb (like whole wheat toast or a serving or fruit or oatmeal) and a good sized protein portion like boiled or scrambled eggs. Those that are concerned about the cholesterol content of eggs need not worry as there is no evidence that eggs raise total cholesterol levels. In fact it has been shown that eggs have the heart healthy omega 3s. Eat a moderate carb and protein lunch like a bowl of brown rice or whole wheat bread along with lentil soup and some vegetables and eat a low carb dinner with a protein shake. In between the three meals eat a mid meal snack like a handful of almonds or walnuts or a protein shake or an almond butter toast or a banana or an apple. And don’t forget to get 30% of your caloric intake from heart healthy (mono unsaturated) fats; the ones found in almonds, walnuts, olive and canola oil, to name a few.

iv) Fight stress: Proven stress reduction tactics include:
a) Exercise: exercise has been shown to reduce ones stress levels. In fact intense exercise increases the serotonin levels in the brain that have a calming effect, plus there is nothing more elating than finishing at 20-30 mile bike ride or finishing an intense weightlifting workout.

b) Meditation: deep breathing techniques and meditation have been shown to reduce blood pressure, slow the heart beat and reduce stress in general. So people thinking that yoga and meditation don’t do anything for weight loss, think again! Meditation also has a positive effect on cholesterol levels.

c) Sleep: make sure you get at least 7-8 hrs of quality sleep every night. It has been shown that any less than 6 hrs of sleep a day drops the metabolism and contributes to weight gain.

d) Laugh: Laughter is the best medicine! It is a great stress buster and additionally the rapid contractions in the mid section due to laughing works our core muscles. So rent a comedy movie and laugh away, or simply laugh for no reason (in private of course). For some, laughing even kills hunger pangs.

e) Keep a positive attitude: If nothing, keeping a positive attitude helps feel good and gives a general sense of well being. Think, what’s the worst that can happen in any given situation? Think of the great family you have and think of all the good friends around you. Happiness can be found everywhere if we have the desire to look for it. So, don’t worry be happy!

Try incorporating an element of each of these techniques in your daily life and your body will reward you with a lighter and energetic you, not to mention a longer life. Until next time…

1) Yusuf S et al. Obesity and the risk of myocardial infarction in 27,000 participants from 52 countries: a case-control study. Lancet 2005; 366: 1640-49.

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