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Weight Loss for Seniors: Is it Healthy?

You have the experience and confidence that comes with age, but somehow you lost your twenty-year-old body along the way. You may even fall into the overweight category. How important is weight loss for seniors?

Should you try to lose some weight? What is a healthy weight for you as an older adult?

Let’s take a look at what the research says and try to answer those questions. Read on to learn how you can look and feel your best and still have a healthy body.

The BMI As A Weight Measurement Tool

Doctors and some dietitians will calculate your BMI, or Body Mass Index. This allows them to fit you into a category of underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. 

You might think the BMI, which is used so often in healthcare, was developed by a doctor. It was actually dreamed up back in the 1800s by a Belgian statistician named Quetelet. He was working on a concept of “social averages” and identifying characteristics of the “average man.” His “Quetelet Index” was an attempt to quantify the average size for people at that time.

One important note here is that his calculations only included a narrow subset of Western European men living in the 1800s.

About a hundred years later, Ancel Keys, who is also not a doctor but a physiologist, used this measurement as a part of his famous Seven Countries Study and renamed it the “Body Mass Index.” This prompted the entire health care industry to believe that the BMI is the best way to quantify the health status of individuals (1).

The BMI is not the best measurement to determine how healthy you are. It doesn’t take into account how much body fat you have compared to muscle, or whether that fat is under your skin or around your organs. 

However, this is the measurement used in most doctor offices. It is also used by researchers, including the research we will look at in this post. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered to be normal weight. When your BMI creeps to 25 and above you may learn that you are overweight. A BMI of 30 and above is considered to be obese.

The Research on Weight Loss for Seniors

Research is showing that a BMI in the overweight and even sometimes the obese range can actually be protective for an older person. This is referred to as the obesity paradox.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, over 9000 men and women were assessed for risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer or chronic respiratory conditions based on their BMI. Those in the overweight category, which is a BMI between 25 and 30, actually had the lowest risk of death. 

To narrow it down even further, the best BMI range was between 26 and 27. Study participants in the normal BMI range had a higher risk of mortality as their BMI decreased. 

Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined changes in muscle mass and grip strength as we age. As grip strength declined the mortality risk increased for everyone, but there was a significantly greater risk for those who lost weight at the same time. 

Sarcopenia is an on-going loss of skeletal muscle that often happens in the elderly. Skeletal muscles are the muscles in your arms and legs that you use to move your bones around. An adult with sarcopenia is considered to be frail, and at increased risk for fractures and illnesses. 

Obese adults with sarcopenia were not at a higher risk for mortality than normal weight adults with sarcopenia. However, sarcopenia combined with weight loss presented the greatest risk.

Another interesting study in Obesity Journal looked at hypertension and obesity. It compared the effect of larger BMI on hypertension in young, middle aged and older adults. Even though older adults are more likely to have hypertension, the odds of having hypertension were lower in obese elderly than they were in elderly of normal weight.

Why Extra Weight is Protective for Seniors

So, the research suggests that having a few extra pounds can be protective as you get older. Why would this be? We don’t know exactly, but there are a few theories.

  • As you age there are some changes to your body composition. Fat tends to redistribute from your arms and legs to your trunk, and accumulate around your organs. This leads to muscle weakness and sarcopenia.
  • An older adult on a calorie restricted diet does not have the energy intake to support exercise that keeps muscles strong. They do not have the protein they need to build and maintain muscle mass. 
  • Sometimes an older adult might have a digestive disorder or develop dental problems that keep them from eating well, even if it is only temporary. Extra pounds provide a buffer against the weight loss that happens during these times. They can be the difference that keeps that person from going down an irreversible road of decline.
  • Extra padding can help prevent life-threatening fractures if there is a fall. Also, low BMI is associated with low bone density. In fact, there is evidence that a person at a higher weight has better density in the bones of the spine, and and less chance of fracturing bones in the lower spine (1, 2). 

Overall, the extra pounds that make you overweight can be a metabolic and nutritional reserve that help you to recover from accidents or illness.

Exercise can help with weight in older adults.

Looking Good at a Healthy Weight

Protein

It is essential that you eat enough protein if you want to keep your muscles toned. With healthy muscles, you will look better, feel better, and have more energy to stay active.

How much protein do you need? This is different for everyone depending on size and what is happening with your health. However a rule of thumb is to eat at least 25-30 grams of protein at each meal, and include protein in all of your snacks.

Meats, fish and poultry are good sources of protein. You can also get protein from nuts, nut butters, eggs, cheese, seeds, beans and legumes. A good quality protein powder is helpful if you are having trouble getting enough from foods.

Are you having some difficulty eating all the protein that you need? I can help with that! Schedule a free call to talk about ways that you can work with me to get more protein into your meals.

Energy

Here is something you may not have heard before: calories are your friend. You might have gone through your adult life counting and avoiding calories. But the truth is your body needs energy to function properly.

Calories give your body the energy for your brain and muscles to work. Your digestive system requires an enormous amount of energy to make stomach acid and enzymes which digest your food. Your immune system uses a lot of resources to keep up the surveillance systems that protect all of your organs. If you take away the energy, your body begins to shut down.

When you don’t eat enough calories, your body begins to break down proteins and uses them for energy. It can actually turn proteins into a glucose supply which the brain requires. When you provide enough energy, your body is free to use proteins for building muscle, supporting the immune system and making enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters.

Exercise

A sedentary lifestyle, without much exercise, increases the risk of mortality. This is especially true for older women. Rather than restricting your calories, it is healthier to pay attention to living an active lifestyle. 

To keep your muscles strong you need an exercise routine that works and maintains those muscles.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends older adults get moderate aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week. If you do more intense exercise the minimum is 20 minutes for three days a week. 

Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate and makes you breathe a little faster and even sweat a little. This might be a brisk walk, dancing, or even yard work that is a little strenuous. 

Obviously, check with your doctor before you try exercising at a level you are not used to doing.

You want to strengthen your major muscle groups at least twice a week, but spread out over the week and not two days in a row. Strengthening muscles usually means weight-bearing exercises.   

Flexibility and balance are also super important if you want to live a long and healthy life. If you aren’t sure how to do this, find a trainer, guide, or program that works with older adults.

Find out more ways to improve your health through simple changes. Learn from health professionals about the most common health mistakes that they see in their practice.

Final Thoughts

Research shows that having a BMI that is just above the overweight range is protective for an older adult. Losing weight is associated with frailty and a higher risk of mortality.

Having a few extra pounds provides a physical padding. It also gives you an energy and protein buffer that can get you through unexpected health challenges.

To maintain a healthy weight, make sure you are eating enough energy and protein to meet your needs. Set up an exercise routine to keep your muscles strong.

The take-away here is that it is ok to be a few pounds overweight as you grow in years. Your body has been there for you for all your life. Now is the time to nurture yourself with enough food to keep an older body healthy.

Are you wondering how you can get enough protein in your diet, or whether you are eating enough calories? I can help with this. Just click on the button below to get started.

2 thoughts on “Weight Loss for Seniors: Is it Healthy?”

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  2. Pingback: Breakfast For Weight Gain - The Whole Story LLC

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