If you’ve noticed the number on your scale creeping upward as you get older, you may have shrugged and chalked it up to the slowed metabolism that supposedly comes along with age. After all, isn’t it common knowledge that gaining weight is easier — and losing it is much harder — after 40 or so? As it turns out, maybe not so much.
Personally, I’ve always heard it’s normal to gain one to two pounds a year starting in middle age and have resigned myself to adding a pound to my weight for every extra candle on my birthday cake. But a recent study has me rethinking that theory: A research team at Duke University led by evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzner, PhD, author of Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy (Buy from Amazon, $20), found that from age 20 to 60, our metabolism holds steady — and that’s true through puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.
Even after age 60, metabolism decreases only very gradually, at a rate of about one percent per year.
Do we burn fewer calories as we age?
In the study, scientists analyzed data from more than 6,400 people around the world, ranging in age from newborn to 95. They looked at how many calories they burned each day (a key indicator of metabolic rate) and found that after peaking at about one year old, metabolism slows and the number of calories burned per day decreases by about three percent each year. That lasts until the end of the teenage years, and starting around age 20, metabolism stays consistent until age 60 or so.
What’s the takeaway here, besides that babies are calorie-burning machines? Bottom line: If you’re not 60 yet, your metabolism probably isn’t to blame for any weight you’ve put on lately. And even if you’re over 60, it’s still not too big a factor. (Plus, there’s evidence that losing weight after 60 may actually be easier than when you’re younger!) In other words, the fact that I recently bought a fabulous new pair of jeans that are two sizes larger than my old favorites has less to do with biology, and more to do with the frequent fresh-baked bread and daily bottle of wine I indulged in during peak pandemic days.
Indeed, Pontzner says processed foods like bread can easily be the culprit behind unwanted weight gain — even if you exercise regularly, as I do. “Exercise for health is super important, but diet is your best tool for weight loss, for weight management,” Pontzer told Dr. Oz. In other words, it’s not shocking that running 20 miles a week didn’t cancel out the effects of my increase in comfort food consumption.
What’s the best way to lose weight as we get older?
So what can I — or rather, we — do to get back to our fighting weight? According to Pontzner, the study’s findings can be empowering, helping us renew our commitment to weight loss with the reassurance that our metabolism is still ticking away just as it did when we were in our twenties and thirties.
“There’s not some invisible force that’s forcing you to gain weight,” said Pontzner. “Instead, we can take control of our diet, focus on the calories that we’re taking in, and take control of our weight that way. We need to get back to basics, get away from processed foods. Focus on foods that are high protein, high fiber, whole foods, and that’s going to be the best way to manage your weight.”
That’s not to say that exercise isn’t important — moving our bodies is vital to our mental health as well as our physical health — but if you’re trying to nudge the number on the scale down, it’s good to know that the old formula of calories in vs. calories out works as well at age 52 as it did at 22.
Now if only I can say the same for my eyesight and creaky joints, I’ll be feeling like a college kid again!