When I hit my 40s, I was warned by many older friends that maintaining my weight would become impossible now that I was reaching middle age. That my slim days were over and to just accept it - this was the way things went. It concerned me (well, terrified me). I’d never obsessed over being thin, but I liked living an active life, eating healthy-ish and comfortably fitting into my favourite tight jeans. I liked looking and feeling great. And, for me, a big part of that is being slim. It’s the body I’m used to and the body I’d like to keep for as long as possible. I decided at that time to do my best to buck the trend of so many of my peers by learning how to eat less alongside my fitness routine.
Since them, I’ve continued to become more aware of what I eat, when I eat and how I eat. It’s been a long process that has required patience, self-forgiveness and an insatiable curiosity about what my body needs as I age. Something is working. I’m 48 years old now and am about the same weight I was when I was 21. While there have been some ups and downs over the decades, as well as three pregnancies, my weight has remained stable for more than 30 years. Some of it is genetics, and some of it is related to my fitness routine that includes walking, running and yoga. However, the biggest impact through my 40s has been my eating habits. I’ve learned to how to eat less through self-awareness and curiosity. I’ll get into more detail on how it works, but first, let’s better understand what’s going on with your body as you age.
Metabolism slows as you age
Metabolism does slow down as you age. This is a simple fact that we all have to live with and offers some truth to the belief that weight gain is inevitable as we age. Notice I said some truth. There is plenty a person can do to lose weight or maintain weight at any age by learning how to eat less and establish healthy lifestyle habits.
Studies have shown that the basal metabolic rate (BMR) decreases with age. What does this mean exactly? Let’s start with the definition of metabolism. It is the sum of all the processes that occur in your body just to keep you alive. They require energy which is measured in - you guessed it - CALORIES. This is important to note -- Calories are good for you - they keep you alive! How many of us automatically feel negative toward that word? Take a minute to recognize that calories are not bad for you. Let it sink in. How’s that feel?
Now, if you were completely immobile and needed just enough energy to stay alive, how many calories would you need per day? This is what the BMR is. BMR is the amount of calories needed for you to run all those processes in your body each day -- and nothing else. Of course, we are not immobile creatures, so each individual needs enough calories to sustain his or her physical activity, as well. That amount would be your ideal caloric intake per day to maintain your weight.
You can figure out your BMR with this BMR calculator. I don’t recommend counting calories, but it’s a way to gauge whether you’re eating close to your ideal caloric intake. You can also play around with the numbers based on activity level and age to see how much your caloric needs have changed over the years.
One of the main reasons why our BMR decreases with age is because the older we get, the less muscle we tend to have. While some of this can be attributed to genetics and hormones, it’s also related to inactivity. We tend to move less with each passing decade. This is something each of us has some control over. While it’s unlikely you can prevent the decreasing BMR completely, adding weight bearing exercises to a regular fitness routine can slow the decline of muscle mass as you age.
In short, if you’re not decreasing your calories to accommodate your decreasing BMR, you’re going to gain weight as you age. It’s simple math.
So far here’s what we know so far:
- Your BMR decreases as you age
- If you don’t lower calories to offset the BMR decrease (every few years), you’re eating too much and will gain weight
- The decreased metabolism is related to inactivity and decreased muscle mass
- Weight bearing exercises to build muscle can help slow the rate at which your BMR decreases and thus, enable you to eat more calories.
How to eat less
Most of us know we could eat less. But, that’s rarely the issue. It’s actually following through on eating less that is the struggle.
I don’t offer a quick fix, lose weight fast, diet solution. We all know those don’t work. What I suggest is a simple process that, over time, will increase your awareness of what, how and where you eat, as well as how your body feels throughout the day. Over time, you should be able eat more intuitively and wisely without feeling deprived.
To do this, you want to become your own witness to your eating habits. How, you ask? By writing down everything you eat. I know it sounds ridiculously simple and, I also know, writing down what you eat may seem like a pain in the neck. I felt the same way. Whenever this was suggested to me, I would dismiss it. Too much work! I can just be aware of what I eat without writing it down, I thought. Nope. Not gonna do it. Until a few years ago.
I had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, was experiencing various skin ailments with no “apparent cure” and trying to eat more whole foods but failing miserably. I decided to keep a record of what I ate.
It was way easier than I thought it would be and set me on a course of healthier eating as well as helped me decide to quit drinking alcohol.
I suggest keeping it really simple:
- Find or purchase a small notepad that you can tuck away in a corner of your kitchen counter or in a cupboard that’s easy to grab.
- Keep a pen inside it or next to it.
- Every time you’re in the kitchen and have a minute to spare, write down what you’ve eaten and drank so far that day.
- If you forget to record until the end of the day, then just go by memory to jot it down. It’s not hard to recount what you ate over a day.
- Be as specific as you feel comfortable. I did not list every ingredient or specific quantities, i.e., handful of trail mix or one piece of bumbleberry pie.
Do this every day for as long as you feel is necessary to get a clear picture of what you eat and how much. I suggest at least two weeks, then take a break, and start again a couple weeks later to see how you’ve changed. And, keep it up and on and off when you feel you need to re-evaluate your diet.
It’s a powerful exercise. Here’s why.
Ever notice how your behaviour changes when you know someone is watching you? Well, it also works when the observer is you! By simply knowing that I had to write everything I ate down on a piece of paper, I was motivated to eat less and healthier. I discovered that I didn’t want to record my bad food choices. Even though I knew I was the only one who would ever read my notes, I actually didn’t want myself to know I wasn’t eating as healthy as I should. It was like I was the spy and the person being spied on. Weird, right?
I know it sounds nuts. But, I dare you to try it. Just by the simple practice of recording what I ate, I wanted to eat healthier. It made me pause before eating something I knew was bad for me. I’d resist those three Oreos mid-afternoon. I’d think twice about eating ice cream out of the container or snacking on Goldfish crackers just before dinner. I was way more aware of every choice I made simply because I would have to write it down. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I even cheated a couple of times and excluded the odd cookie from my notebook - something I don’t recommend.
By being my own witness/snitch, I naturally wanted to be more careful about my choices. And, even those days when I didn’t care so much, I was able to see my true habits. It was pretty surprising. I snacked way more than I realized, nibbling throughout the day on small unhealthy bites. Half a chocolate bar here, a licorice there. And when I still drank wine? Wow, I wasn’t enjoying a nightly glass of wine. When I look back at my notes from three years ago, I see 3 glasses of wine, 2 glasses of wine, even 2 ½ glasses of wine (it was probably close to 3). Those extra calories add up.
I also noticed when I wasn’t eating enough vegetables or fruits. The more I kept track, the more in depth I got with my observations. If I felt lethargic in the evening, I’d review what I ate. The same went for bloating, headaches, skin issues. I was able to discern which nutrients were not included in my diet so that I could intentionally include those foods that had them. For anyone who is an emotional eater (um, who isn’t?) this practice is gold. It forces you to be aware of everything you put in your mouth and consider the why. If not in the moment, certainly when you go back and review your notes a couple days later.
The best part about recording your eating habits is that it doesn’t include any shame or guilt about not following a diet or a belief that you shouldn’t eat this, but you should eat that. The most important aspect about this is staying curious about how you can benefit from changes that you, yourself, make.
Eating less is good for you
If you’re still not convinced you may need to reduce your calories, here’s another interesting fact. In Daniel J. Levitin’s recently released book, Successful Aging, Levitin discusses the benefits of caloric restriction, sometimes referred to as fasting. In it, he notes that eating less helps limit the detrimental effects of aging and increases overall longevity. Whether one chooses to reduce calories by cutting back throughout the day, fasting one day a week, or skipping dinner twice a week, any of them appear to be beneficial. As of yet, there is not one single method for restricting calories that works better than the other. Find one that works for you, if this practice appeals to you. Levitin, personally, practices not eating when he’s not hungry and skipping dinner a couple times a week. The research backs the benefits of going hungry for short spurts of time. This may be one way you choose to lower your overall calorie consumption.
What to eat and what not to eat
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the energy we use comes from calories, and calories come from the three sources of food: carbohydrate, protein and fat. We need all three sources of energy. Despite what we’ve been brainwashed to believe by the myriad diets and food marketing gurus, fat is good for you. Carbs are good for you. Protein is good for you (that one, has yet to be demonized).
We’ve become a society of worriers when it comes to food. Relax. Cutting back on calories shouldn’t turn into a stressful ordeal. Author Michael Pollen explains our society’s obsession over eating in his awesome book, In Defense of Food. He shares a term that describes people like this (like, us) -- ORTHOREXICS. Pollen writes, “orthorexics are people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. The nutrition industry, over the past few decades, has made eating about bodily health. But, he explains, eating is more than how it impacts the body. It’s for pleasure, community, family , spirituality, our connection to the earth and even our identity. Food has become something we worry about incessantly.”
Stop worrying. Start being aware. And enjoy the bounty of the earth. This is the beginning of eating intuitively - naturally knowing what foods make your body feel great, and which foods lower your energy or cause your body discomfort.
There are certain foods you should not eat
Cut out the refined sugar, deep fried foods and heavily processed foods. You know this. Now when you cut it out and record it, you can really awaken to your body’s experience before, during and after you eat. And, when you do choose to eat these types of foods, do it with intention. Small indulgences don’t make us feel like we’ve overeaten. I have no guilt when I eat a treat, whether it’s a croissant or chocolate. I savour every single bite and do not go for seconds (usually).
On the other hand, there are foods you should eat.
In his book, Successful Aging, Levitin explains that studies continually show the benefits of including virgin olive oil, cruciferous vegetables and oily fish in one’s diet. Antioxidants are also important to include. Antioxidants are chemicals that interact with and neutralize free radicals in your body that can cause damage such as inflammation and chronic disease. Foods with antioxidants protect us against cellular damage, prevent premature aging in our skin, brain, heart, vitality and energy. Great sources are brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts.
There are so many great resources online to help you determine the absolute best foods to eat, but beware the lure of being orthorexic. Start with simple changes. You will naturally add changes over time. Eat more veggies, nuts, beans, whole grains. Eat less fried foods, refined sugar foods and beverages and pre-packaged foods with a massive ingredient list of words you can’t pronounce.
Pollan offers so much great advice in his book, In Defense of Food. These are among my favourite tips:
- Consult your gut. Most of us allow external and mostly visual cues to dictate how much we eat - the larger the portion, the more we eat. Cultivate the other senses, as well. Does this peach smell as good as it looks? Does the third bite of the dessert taste anywhere near as good as the first? I could eat more of this, but am I really still hungry?
- Eat more slowly, then consult your sense of satiety.
- Sit at a table to eat.
- Enjoy the meal, preferably with someone else.
- When you’re full, stop.
As you record what you eat, you’ll find it becomes easier to follow these suggestions. You may find yourself using hacks, such as serving smaller portions to begin with, and packing the leftovers in the fridge before you sit down to eat, to prevent you from filling up on seconds.
As you adjust your eating habits over time, you should notice that there is no reason to “starve” yourself. Healthier options can be eaten in larger quantities because they have fewer calories.
Consider this: one potato, cubed and baked with a little olive oil is less than 200 calories. The same amount in potato chips is more than 500 calories. Whereas the baked potato is a great source of fibre, protein, potassium, vitamin C and iron, a couple handfuls of potato chips won’t offer much nutritional value and, even worse, will leave you craving to eat the rest of the bag, adding an additional 500 calories to your “snack.” Best to keep the chip snacking to a weekly treat, rather than a nightly habit.
Speaking of nightly habit, watch the amount of alcohol you drink. Nighttime munchies anyone?
Our body works hard for us
I believe the more we know about how hard our body works to keep us healthy, the more we will understand the important role we have in fueling our bodies. The human body is incredibly intelligent. Without us having to consciously think about it, our bodies perform thousands of tasks every second of our lives. In fact, I really wonder how we ever came to believe our mind is the most intelligent source in our bodies. Hmmmm.
Here I offer a quick run-through of the digestive process so that you can be aware of how your food is being used to fuel your life.
While we rarely think about our food beyond the pleasure or displeasure of its texture and taste in our mouths, that is just the first step in a long digestive process that can take up to 24 hours to cover a distance of 30 feet through muscular tubes and chambers. It begins in the mouth where it’s crushed and ground by teeth. This is the experience we are most acutely aware of - it lasts anywhere from five seconds to an hour if we’re enjoying a multi-course dinner. Digestion begins with chewing your food. It’s vital to this first step, so slow down.
From there, it moves through the throat, then the esophagus, to the stomach. In the stomach, gastric juices break down food and kill potentially harmful microbes before moving into the small intestine. Here, chemical digestion breaks down food into molecules small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream. In these molecules are the essential nutrients we need to fuel our lives. The healthier the food, the more we are giving our body. Junkfood? Not a lot of use for the body.
The liver plays an important part in digestion, as well. It receives blood from the digestive tract and prevents toxins that are absorbed into the intestines from reaching the rest of the body. It is also responsible for storing and releasing blood sugar for energy, sorting and processing vitamins and minerals, breaking down toxins (like alcohol) into less harmful substances and recycling old blood cells.
What cannot be digested is compacted into the large intestine and eliminated as stool. The large intestine is where our gut flora is. Billions of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, live in the intestinal tract, chiefly the large intestine that, when in balance, help control harmful microbes which may enter the digestive system.
This is a really simple description of the digestive system. It offers a glimpse into how hard our bodies work to keep us healthy. Do you want to help or hinder your body’s efforts to keep you healthy? Do you want to feel good, look good and stay healthy for as long as you’re on this planet? As we move into middle age, and beyond, our food choices make a big difference in how much we thrive in our second half of life. Be present to it.