For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing about how your metabolism slows down as you age—and how getting fatter is inevitable. I remember my older brother telling me that as he circled 30. It seemed reasonable, so I filed that away in my mental archives and didn’t question it for many years. You may have had a similar experience. It’s time to pull that file out and shred it.
There’s plenty that can be done to counter metabolic slowdown. The issue is not genetics or ageing in general. That’s just a red herring. The real issue is what habits you’ve been practicing for the past two to three decades.
If you have the same habits you had at 19, you will probably be bad at stuff. Terrible, quite possibly. Think about it like money. If you spend 100% of your paycheque (and available credit), you’ll find that you have financial distress. I did that at 19. You know that I don’t do that anymore because I’m not writing this article from the inside of a cardboard box.
I’m hoping that your saving habits have evolved—even if you used to be just like my 19-year-old self. You’ve had decades to work on this stuff and practice the skills you need until they are pretty much unconscious. You may need a kickstart, though. That’s what we’re going to do.
Nutrition is like money—it’s a numbers game that is pinned up by a habits game.
I find that the people who struggle the most with eating are often the ones with great genetics and a background in sports. If this sounds like you, the truth is you didn’t need
to practice great eating habits when you were a teenager. You were so active that you probably needed every calorie you could squeeze down. Things change, though.
“Ok, so now what?”
You simply have to recognize that your habits are far more malleable than your genetics or chronological age. You can change things but it’s going to take some real effort.
For now, it may be time to reevaluate what you consider a free-for-all, a relaxed day, and a structured day. I highly recommend starting by keeping some notes on what those days look like. Your first step is shoring up awareness between what you think is happening and what is actually happening.
For someone with great default settings, a completely relaxed day will probably still revolve around low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. There may just be some extra snacks or treats involved. However, if we track their average weekly intake, we’ll find that they are still eating in a deficit (more calories burned than consumed).
If we deconstruct their environment a little more, we’ll find that they have only high-quality food at home, are used to specific portion sizes and slow eating, and don’t eat until they’re stuffed. We’ll also see a social circle that is more likely to meet at the Smoothie Shack than Heart Attack Burger.
When we look at a typical week on the whole, we’ll see a caloric deficit (fewer calories consumed than burned), adequate sleep,
and a host of other habits that essentially set them up for success.
What about someone with less structured habits or default settings?
We know how things tend to play out with our other guy. He is aware of good nutrition, he just doesn’t have habits that automate it. That’s because this isn’t a knowledge issue. Maybe there is leftover pizza in the fridge but it’s more likely that there’s not much food at all and eating brunch out really feels like the option—especially he woke up late (and hungry!) You know that walking into a restaurant hangry is not exactly a recipe for restrained ordering.
I want to point out that this isn’t about pleasure. Nobody is stressed out in either scenario. Again, it’s just default habits.
To be totally fair, there is some truth to the idea of metabolic slowdown. About a 5-10% reduction in metabolic rate between 20 and 45—if I need to pull a number out of my ass. That range has to do with decreasing metabolic needs that are non-negotiable. Let’s call that about 100-200 calories per day. This amount is not nothing. However, it is also eminently manageable.
More substantial slowdowns can and do happen. But those physiological changes are averages based on people that do not do any strength or power training. These people lose muscle mass—along with supporting players, like mitochondria, capillaries, and even nerve conduction speed. Losing that stuff will absolutely slow you down. The good news is that it’s not inevitable. Fitness fixes that.
Work out, yes. But also give serious consideration to the habits behind how you eat. There are tons of opportunities to move things forward. The first step in all of this, though, is an accurate accounting of what you’re doing. And, of course, to stop assuming that gaining fat as you age is inevitable.
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