Many of us can remember when we were teenagers and we could eat just about anything we wanted without much weight gain. If this wasn't you as a teenager, you probably remember at least a few friends who managed to eat all the food in the house but never gained weight. Part of why, as teenagers, eating large amounts of calories does not lead to weight gain is because of the need for a large amount of calories. Teenage years are the second highest period of growth for humans in a lifetime, the first being infancy. It is the time when bodies develop and there is a need for a great deal of calories for this to happen.
When the body's growth rate slows down, the need for more calories is decreased. Many people never learn to change their eating patterns from when they are teenagers to adult. The portion sizes stay the same and the fatty foods that helped meet the body's needs all contribute to an increase in weight instead of growth. As we get older, our body's metabolism starts to decrease due to a loss of muscle and changes in hormone levels. These changes lead to a decreased need in the amount of calories to sustain body weight. As these changes occur, the body sends signals to the brain to help regulate food intake. Many people are unaware of what their body tries to tell them and continue to overeat. Ignoring the signals the body is sending leads to continued weight gain and declining health, which many people experience.
There are ways to slow some of these changes and their effects on the body. Exercising regularly and making dietary changes can slow changes in hormone and metabolism. Exercise is a great way to sustain muscle growth. By doing this, the decrease in metabolism seen with loss of muscle mass with age is avoidable. The increased muscle mass will benefit older adults by helping to maintain joint stability and lower risk of falls associated with loss of muscle. Muscle mass does not just benefit older adults, younger adults will see changes in their body composition with a decrease in body fat and an increase in fat free mass with strength training. These changes will start to become apparent as pants size decreases and the body is more toned.
Along with exercise, making changes to the diet will help to maintain metabolism by keeping body fat in the normal range. The more body fat a person has the less fat burning potential is in the body. Muscle is the calorie burning machine while fat provides energy when the body is in starvation. More muscle means more calories burned and the more calories burned means the more calories need to be consumed to maintain weight.
There is a fine balance between meeting the body's need for calories to keep a steady amount of energy throughout the day and exceeding calorie needs. Listen to your body. It will tell you when you have enough to meet energy needs, when you need to push a little more in the gym and when you need to treat yourself to a little enjoyment from food.
Grete R. Hornstrom is a Clinical Dietitian who is currently specializing in pediatric care. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Physical Education with a concentration in Exercise Science from Kent State University, a Master of Arts in Wellness Management from Ball State University, and a Master of Science in Dietetics from Ball State University. She has worked with overweight children and adults, recreational and elite athletes, chronically ill children, and every day people on developing nutrition plans and healthy lifestyle changes. In addition she has worked with recreational teams, high school teams, and college teams educating them on the importance of nutrition and performance. She has completed one marathon and three half marathons in the last two years. Her newest sport of choice is cycling.