Hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, brain fog: Menopause can make you wonder if your body is totally cuckoo. But what many women don’t realize is that they do have some control over these symptoms. Here’s what’s going on, plus six lifestyle strategies to feel your best during menopause.

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Mood swings. Weight gain. Waking up to sweat-soaked pajamas and bedsheets every… darn… night.

Menopause can feel weird, uncomfortable, and downright scary for many women.

Your body is suddenly doing all this stuff you don’t recognize.

Sometimes it feels like your body and brain are no longer under your control.

You ask yourself…

Is this normal?

Is my body against me?

Is there anything I can DO?!

When you look to the internet for advice, you’re confronted with headlines like this:

“8 sneaky symptoms of perimenopause — Do YOU have it?”

“Rare jungle herbs to cool your hot flashes & heat up your libido!”

“Fight biology and battle your meno-belly with this celebrity diet.”

This is not that kind of article.

We won’t prescribe a “to do” list so you can “overcome” menopause.

No “life hacks”, “cool tricks”, or “quick fixes” either.

Instead, we hope to help you:

  • understand your body;
  • appreciate the intelligent adaptations it makes with age; and
  • embrace change, with all the possibilities that come with it.

Because if you’re a woman (or if you coach women), understanding what’s changing during menopause, why it’s happening, and how to deal with it can make the whole process a lot less confusing, uncomfortable, and frustrating.

While you might feel like your body is all over the place, you actually do have control over your mindset, your lifestyle, and your environment — all of which also affect the symptoms that come along with menopause.

You have the power to affect your hormones.

Yep, really.

There are things you can do to ensure you feel healthy, strong, and — yes — sexy during menopause.

  • If you’re a woman going through perimenopause or menopause, you might find recognition and relief in this article. You’ll learn exactly what’s going on with your body and what you can do about it.
  • If you’re a woman who hasn’t yet reached perimenopause or menopause, you’ll learn about what lies ahead. That way, when it happens, you’ll know (or at least have some ideas about) what to do.
  • If you’re a coach who works with women, you’ll gain insight into what your female clients or patients in midlife may be experiencing. Understanding what’s happening on a biological, psychological, and social level will help you sharpen your coaching superpowers.

In this article:

  • We’ll outline and examine the different hormonal phases of a woman’s life.
  • We’ll explain what causes menopause and its warm-up act, perimenopause.
  • We’ll explore how menopause can affect the body, the symptoms women commonly experience, and what can help.
  • We’ll suggest lifestyle habits and strategies that can help you feel empowered and in control of your hormones during midlife.

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First, a disclaimer.

Of course, not all women will experience what we’re describing.

We’re speaking here about bodies that have female reproductive systems and a hormonal environment that’s within the statistically “normal” range.

But some people with female reproductive systems don’t identify as female.

And just as there is no single standard experience of menopause, there’s also no single standard way to be a woman (or, for that matter, a man).

People are diverse, and that’s a good thing.

Take what’s useful for YOU from this article, and leave the rest.

A woman walks into a medical office…

Yes, menopause often starts like the first line of a bad joke.

It might begin with your period getting a little wonky.

Maybe it starts showing up late (or early). Or it’s longer (or shorter), more painful (or less painful), heavier (or lighter). And sometimes it doesn’t show up at all.

And it’s not just your period.

Whatever your “normal” is starts changing.

Sleep deceives you.

Like a fickle ghost, it visits only at random points in the night.

Your temperature is weird too.

You might find yourself going for a walk in the middle of winter and having to tear your scarf off and unzip your jacket, your neck literally steaming.

You might be a little moodier than usual.

Yesterday at the drugstore, you became enraged because you couldn’t find the toilet paper brand you wanted. I can’t use this sandpaper! you howled at the confused clerk, and stormed out.

Maybe you’ve heard about these symptoms before. From girlfriends, from your older sister, from Googling late at night when you can’t sleep… again.

So you make an appointment with your doctor.

You sit down with your doctor and tell them about your symptoms:

“Hey doc, my vagina is chafing and feels like fire… just kidding… unless you know what to do about that?”

“Hey doc, let’s say someone bled for 17 days last month. Is that normal? I’m asking for, er, a friend.”

“Hey doc, yesterday at the gym, mid-squat, I peed a little. It also happens when I cough, laugh, orgasm, jump, or yell at my dog in a sudden fit of fathomless rage.”

Your doctor tells you these symptoms are consistent with perimenopause.

Wait, what? You’re only 38! You thought hormone stuff was for, like, your mom.

There’s no single start or end point for menopause.

You might look back on one moment in your life as “the time I realized I was a grown-up”.

Holding that first retirement fund receipt. Buying clothes for quality stitching, not style. Keeping an orchid alive for more than 8 weeks.

But biology operates on a continuum. That means there’s no single moment when menopause (or perimenopause) begins.

In general, physiological processes and systems are complex and ever-changing.

They ebb and flow from moment to moment, and year to year.

That means:

Menopause is a dynamic and responsive process, not a single event.

And it may show up when you’re not expecting it.

Just as we go through puberty at different ages, perimenopause and menopause kick in at different times, too. Usually, perimenopause begins in a woman’s 40s (although it can happen as early as her 30s), and menopause can happen anytime between a woman’s 40s and 60s.

The exact timing varies for each woman. It’s is kind of like a repair person who says they’ll be there between 9am and 8pm — a bit hard to predict.

That said, there are some district hormonal stages, which generally work as a linear process. Our first major hormonal event is that zit-sprouting, growth-spurting, heart-palpitating time — puberty!

When we hit puberty, our hormonal factories open for business.

In our reproductive years, a complex symphony of hormonal feedback loops occurs approximately once a month.

Our brain sends a signal to our ovaries, which respond by increasing production of the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone and other related hormones. We ovulate, build a uterine lining, shed it, and begin the cycle again.

Over and over, these hormonal feedback loops carefully coordinate to ensure that the uterus can support a fetus.

Hormones are pulsatile (meaning they’re released in bursts), and strongly affected by a variety of factors.

Hormones levels rise and drop at varied points during each monthly menstrual cycle.

At some point, the feedback loops start to change subtly.

Perimenopause is the time before menopause.

As women age, their ovaries gradually start producing less estrogen, progesterone, and other related hormones.

However, this isn’t a linear or steadily progressive process.

Just like during reproductive cycles in the years prior, hormone levels vary throughout menopause.

Hormone levels don’t drop all at once; they fluctuate throughout mid-life.

Just like within a reproductive cycle, in perimenopause there are hormonal ups and downs, which create (or contribute to) the seemingly random and unpredictable physical and psychological manifestations we experience.

This stage can be as short as a few years, or longer than a decade.

Menopause marks the end of menstrual cycles.

“Officially”, menopause occurs when a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 months in a row. But there are different ways menopause can occur:

“Natural” menopause: When estrogen, progesterone, and other gonadal hormones (our reproductive / sex hormones) decline on their own as a result of aging.

Premature (or early) menopause: When menopause occurs before the age of 40. Sometimes, we don’t know why this happens. Other times, there are known risk factors, including medical conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism; certain medications; pituitary damage from brain trauma (e.g. a history of concussions); smoking; or genetic inheritance.

Artificial menopause: When menopause occurs when ovaries are removed or damaged (for example, by some types of cancer treatments). Because of the sudden drop in hormones, menopause symptoms begin abruptly and may be more severe than other versions of menopause.

In women without a uterus, menopause can be identified by very high levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which shows that the brain is telling the ovaries to increase production, but the ovaries aren’t listening. High FSH occurs in all women during menopause.

Postmenopause describes the phase after menopause.

At this point, hormonal fluctuations have leveled out, gonadal hormone production has shut down, and levels of most reproductive hormones are now relatively low.

Hormonal changes drive these shifts.

But what does “hormonal change” even mean? And what do hormones do?

Hormones signal our body to do stuff.

Most hormones act widely throughout the body. So, our reproductive hormones don’t just affect our reproductive organs.

Hormones impact how we feel, behave, function, and more.

When hormones change, we change too.

Hormones are complex, and everyone’s are a little different.

When we say “hormones”, what we’re really describing are dozens, if not hundreds, of bioactive chemical compounds that make up complex signalling networks in our bodies.

For instance, “estrogen” is more accurately “estrogens”:

  • estrone (E1);
  • estradiol (E2);
  • estriol (E3); and
  • several other molecules that have estrogenic activity (in other words, that act somewhat like estrogen does).

And along with our gonadal hormones, we also have many other key hormonal systems, such as:

  • thyroid hormones;
  • neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin);
  • gastrointestinal hormones such as insulin;
  • adipose (fat) tissue hormones such as leptin.

Then, there are other cell signalling molecules, known as cytokines, which play with hormones.

All of these molecules interact with each other, and all are governed by our genetic and epigenetic expression, as well as various other factors.

Each one of us has a unique, ever-changing “hormone fingerprint”.

This means that menopause is not as simple as flipping an estrogen on-off switch, and everyone’s hormones are affected by their unique genetics.

That’s part of why menopause is such a different experience from person to person.

Hormones change for many reasons.

While all of the interactions of our reproductive systems are far too complex to predict, one thing is clear:

The hormonal phenomena and experience of perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause are all strongly affected by other factors.

We have the power to influence our hormones through our mindset and lifestyle.

Some things, like what we choose to eat, how we work out, or what meaning we make from our experiences, we can control. Others, like our genes, or how often our bedmate disrupts our sleep with their snoring, we can’t.

Here are the changes you may notice during menopause, plus what can help.

Symptoms of hormonal changes might show up consistently, intermittently, or rarely.

They might be intense or barely noticeable.

But remember:

  • Each woman’s experience is unique.
  • These changes aren’t “just” biological. They’re also closely linked to our thoughts, feelings, relationships, and environments.
  • Many of these symptoms aren’t inevitable. Your environment and behaviors can, to some degree, affect the outcome.

There’s only one given: Endogenous (self-generated) sex hormone production will decline. Everything else is like that randomly appearing repair person: Don’t plan your day around it.

Bladder

Decreased estrogen can lead to a reduced ability to control the urinary tract. You may have to pee more often, get more bladder infections, and have trouble controlling your bladder as pelvic muscles weaken due to aging.

What can help:

  • Exercises from a pelvic physiotherapist to rehabilitate and prevent stress incontinence (when physical stress — such as coughing, sneezing, or laughing — causes an involuntary loss of urine)
  • A vaginal pessary (a removable device that you insert into the vagina that supports pelvic organs) recommended by your doctor, especially if you have uterine prolapse
  • Staying hydrated, peeing after sex, and supplementing a simple, safe carbohydrate known as D-mannose dramatically reduces bladder infections

Body composition

Changing hormones also lead to changing shape.

Lean mass (muscle, bone, and connective tissues) goes down while body fat goes up, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia.

You might notice more fat around your middle and lower belly in particular.

What can help:

Hormone replacement therapy

About 15 to 25 percent of women find their menopause symptoms so severe that they need hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which usually involves some combination of prescription bioidentical (i.e. just like the molecules our bodies make) estrogen and progestogen pills, patches, creams, or injections.

Most menopause symptoms are triggered by a sudden drop of estrogen, rather than a lack of estrogen overall. HRT that includes estrogen may stabilize levels and alleviate symptoms of menopause.

Because HRT has some risks, choosing it as a therapy depends on a woman’s personal medical history, family medical history, age, and symptom severity. All of these factors should be discussed with a doctor.

Benefits of HRT include relief from symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness and thinning, sleep disruption, and low libido. Increased estrogen also means a better chance of preventing postmenopausal osteoporosis and fractures.

Unfortunately, HRT may also increase the risk of cancer (especially breast cancer) as well as heart attack, stroke, and blood clots.

For now, both the medical community and the research support short-term use of HRT to treat moderate to severe symptoms in healthy women in early menopause. Short-term use of low-dose HRT in healthy women (who have no specific contraindications) does not show increased risk of coronary heart disease, clotting disease, or specific cancers.

As an alternative to HRT, regular exercise, calcium, and vitamin D also play protective roles in maintaining healthy bones.

Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and phytoestrogenic foods such as soy and omega-3 rich flaxseeds may help to alleviate the severity and frequency of hot flashes.

If you’re suffering from moderate to severe symptoms of perimenopause / menopause, discuss your options with your doctor or another trusted healthcare practitioner.

Brain function

Hormones can affect thinking, reasoning, perception, and memory. Many women notice “brain fog” or trouble remembering things with declining hormones.

What can help:

Breast health

Breasts and nipples may become more lumpy and tender. You’re also now at a higher risk for breast cancer.

What can help:

Digestion and bowel function

We tend to make less of our digestive enzymes and stomach acid as we age. Our smooth muscle tissue and intestinal absorption isn’t as peppy as it used to be.

This means you may notice changes in appetite, digestion, and bowel function. Heartburn, gas, and constipation might become your dinner companions more and more.

You may notice new food intolerances and sensitivities. Red wine?! Avocado? Really??

What can help:

Disease risk

“Female hormones” typically lower our risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and so on… at least, until they run out. Then, our risk of these chronic diseases becomes greater.

What can help:

Dizziness / vertigo

Dizziness can occur with changes in how your brain regulates blood pressure (see temperature regulation below).

Women may also notice cyclical benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), a sensation of spinning or dizziness occurring when their head is in particular positions, or when lying down or turning over. While we don’t completely know why this happens, researchers think that declining estrogen weakens the protein matrix that makes up our vestibular (balance) system in our inner ear.

Dizziness can also be related to migraines.

What can help:

  • Staying hydrated, as changes in hydration and sodium levels can affect dizziness and vertigo
  • Discontinuing medications that contribute to dizziness and vertigo, such as sedatives
  • Balance training

Hair

Hair may grow more in some places (like on the face), and less in others (scalp, lower legs, armpits, pubic region).

What the heck, biology?

What can help:

Menstrual cycles

Obviously, menstrual cycles change. They may become more or less frequent, heavier or lighter, more or less painful. Sometimes, they may be astonishingly heavy, like “Hahaha, Super Plus tampon, I will take you DOWN” heavy.

While you can’t do much to affect menstrual frequency or duration, nor the eventual end of menstruation, you can often improve related symptoms, like cramps.

What can help:

Migraines / headaches

Migraines can be stunningly painful or completely painless. For example, with “aura migraines” or ocular migraines, you might see the characteristic sparkling or flashing visuals of a regular migraine without pain. These are typically harmless and resolve in about 20-30 minutes. Other times, a migraine can make you want to submit yourself to a guillotine.

Hormonal fluctuations during perimenopause and menopause can exacerbate headaches and migraines, although these seem to settle after menopause.

What can help:

  • Quality nutrition
  • Keeping a “trigger diary”, which may help you notice that certain things (such as what you eat or your stress levels) make a migraine more likely
  • Hormone replacement therapy or hormonal birth control (for those in perimenopause) may also affect headaches / migraines

Mood and mental health

Mental health covers a wide range of feelings, experiences, and domains, but in general, you might notice:

  • More depression, “blahs”, emotional flatness, trouble “getting motivated”
  • A sense of overwhelm or “it’s all too much”
  • Feeling more irritable or less able to deal with small hassles
  • Feeling more anxious, worried, fearful, or risk-averse
  • Feeling distracted and/or preoccupied, having racing thoughts
  • Crying or other emotional outbursts that happen more often, more unexpectedly, and/or more intensely
  • More mood swings, and/or stronger swings
  • More intense emotions, positive or negative
  • Everyone around you has suddenly turned into a jerk

These mood changes can be attributed to not just variation in hormone levels, but also all the other biopsychosocial shifts that happen during menopause.

For instance, you may have good reasons for those mood swings. Maybe it is all too much, and this is a signal to make some important changes in your life choices, relationships, workload, etc.

What can help:

  • Managing stress
  • Counseling and/or coaching
  • A good social support network
  • In consultation with your doctor, medication like antidepressants

Pain and inflammation

Progesterone and estrogen are linked to pain and inflammation.

As sex hormones decline, you may notice changes in muscle pain, arthritis, other types of joint pain, pelvic pain, or flare-ups of other chronic pain concerns.

What can help:

Sexual function

As estrogen and progesterone decline, the vaginal and urethral epithelium (lining) thins and becomes less elastic. Additionally, lubrication decreases, so the vagina will be drier.

This means that penetration can cause burning, itching, and a feeling like sandpaper on a sunburn.

Libido fluctuates. You may feel more liberated and sexy at midlife — many women say they’re having the greatest sex of their life, because they’re so much more confident, experienced, and assertive.

Or, you may feel like you don’t want anyone touching you, and would give up sex for sleep or chocolate 100 percent of the time.

What can help:

  • Managing stress
  • Doctor-prescribed estrogen creams or lubricants that you can apply to the vaginal area in order to reduce chafing, dryness, and tissue thinning
  • For a non-hormonal option, one study showed that a vaginal gel containing hyaluronic acid (a natural compound involved in tissue repair and moisture regulation) was nearly as effective as estrogen cream at reducing symptoms of vaginal dryness
  • Although vaginal tissue atrophies as a result of declining estrogen, the clitoris shows no such signs of stepping down from its position of pleasure glory. Just sayin’.

Skin

You may notice your skin getting drier or oilier as hormones shift. Perhaps you’re even getting some teenage-style acne.

Protein synthesis slows, so you’ll start to wrinkle, heal slower, and have less collagen. You’ll also likely lose fat from your face, and things will start to sag (because, gravity). You may notice changes in skin pigment.

What can help:

Teeth

Your dentist might start making tsk-tsk noises about gum disease, receding gums, dry mouth, and so on.

What can help:

  • Quality nutrition
  • A good oral health routine (Make your dentist happy!)
  • Not smoking

Temperature regulation

Hot flashes are one of the most puzzling and annoying experiences of menopause.

About 85 percent of North American women report having hot flashes during perimenopause and menopause, and 10-15 percent of them say these temperature changes are so severe that they interfere with daily life.

On average, hot flashes persist for 3-5 years.

Most women describe a hot flash as a feeling of extreme warmth, usually in their upper body and face and lasting a few minutes. Night sweats, as the name implies, are hot flashes that happen at night — you wake up flushed and sweaty, often enough to soak through clothes or bed sheets.

Hot flashes and night sweats seem to be triggered by a sudden dips in estrogen levels, rather than declining estrogen overall.

Body temperature can also be affected by changes in the brain’s vasomotor center, which regulates your blood vessels, making them tighter (vasoconstriction) or more open (vasodilation). However, we still don’t know exactly how the change in estrogen levels affects the vasomotor center.

What can help:

  • Quality nutrition
  • Paced breathing exercises. Try it: Breathe in from the belly while slowly counting to 5. Then, release the breath while slowly counting to 5. Practice this every day for 10-15 minutes. When a hot flash hits, start paced breathing and continue it for 5 minutes. Bonus: Paced breathing may also help lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, and promote relaxation.

Aging is part of life.

In biology, cells senesce — they naturally deteriorate and decline with age.

We can speed this process up, or slow it down, but (for now) we haven’t quite figured out how to stop it altogether.

One thing we do know?

The changes that come with aging — like menopause — are not just in a physiological vacuum.

In other words, the changes we experience during menopause are not just tied to what’s going on with our bodies. Our mindset, the people we spend time with, and the life changes we’re experiencing matter, too.

Life changes are biospsychosocial.

When we experience life changes, they’re due to a complex interaction of the biological, the psychological, and the social dimensions of our lives.

For instance, many of our female nutrition coaching clients are tireless workers and caregivers — whether that’s at work, home, school, or out in the world.

The women we speak to are trying get their kids to school AND write their thesis AND deadlift with proper form AND visit Aunt Ruby who’s recovering from her hip replacement AND remember to vote AND stir the pasta sauce that’s about to bubble over on the stove.

So, if a woman feels fatigue or mood swings — two symptoms of perimenopause or menopause — what’s the “real” reason?

Hormones?

Stress?

Other people?

Not chanting enough positive affirmations?

The answer may be “several of the above” (but probably not the last one).

Often, menopause coincides with other life changes.

These can include:

  • The “empty nest” phase. If you have kids, they usually move out (eventually). Suddenly, your focus shifts from offspring-rearing to… what?
  • Relationship adjustments. If you have a partner, they’re getting older too. Or maybe you’re grappling with divorce, coming out, or starting to date again.
  • Aging parents. If you have parents (or older relatives) who are alive, they may be dealing with health problems or need more attention.
  • Work burnout. You gave at the office… and gave, and gave. What was an inspiring career path at 30 now feels like a joyless death march at 50.
  • A desire for change. You may not have the feverish energy that you used to, but you may find yourself thinking about beginnings: new careers*, new relationships, new places to live.

*Fun fact: Nearly 10 percent of our Precision Nutrition Certification students start a new career at midlife. In fact, one of the authors of this article, Pamela Ruhland, went back to university at 45, did her PN Certification at 48, and was then hired to be an in-house coach with PN on the eve of her 50th birthday!

All these shifts in identity, responsibility, and interest may feel a little disorienting.

But they also create openings for positive change.

Menopause is a great time to build new healthy habits — and maintain current ones.

Many women say middle age is a time of empowerment.

During this period of life, some things die (such as our simplistic youthful illusions, or any desire to wear a crop top).

But new things will grow — fresh identities, opportunities, possibilities.

Women say they feel:

  • More authentic: They care less about what others think and feel more free to be themselves.
  • More courageous: They’ve been through it all, so why not?
  • Less willing to tolerate BS: They’ve put up with crap long enough. They reclaim their time.

Experiences, even difficult ones, bring insight, wisdom, and resilience.

By midlife, we’ve built a nice set of life skills, and we’re looking to use them in new ways.

If you’re going through perimenopause or menopause, you probably won’t like all the changes you’re experiencing.

But remember that that bidirectional relationship between your hormones and the rest of your body that we described earlier?

Just as hormonal changes can affect your sleep, body composition, mental health, and more, your daily habits can impact how strongly you feel the impact of those hormonal shifts.

You’ve got power, lady.

6 lifestyle strategies that can help alleviate menopause symptoms.

Strategy #1: Prioritize quality nutrition.

At this point in life, you may be ready to say goodbye to 10-day cucumber cleanses, fad diets, and get-fit-quick plans. We say: Right on!

And here’s some very good news:

Good nutrition can ease or even alleviate much of the discomfort of midlife physical changes, plus it’ll help you maintain a healthy body composition.

Many of our clients find that through quality nutrition, they can manage their appetite and improve their digestion and bowel habits. (‘Cause no matter how old you are, a good poop is still terrific.)

Prioritizing good nutrition can also decrease disease risk, help manage symptoms of changing menstrual cycles, reduce inflammation (and inflammation-related pain), improve skin quality, and promote dental health.

How to do it:

Most of us are busy, rushed, and hovering over our keyboard as we eat our tuna salad. Slow down and pay attention. This will help you know when you’re truly physically hungry, and when you’ve eaten the amount your body needs.

It’ll also help to alleviate digestive upset like bloating and heartburn, which are really just your body’s way of avenging that spicy calzone you just ate in 17 seconds.

If good nutrition is a goal, consider:

  • Protein: Evidence suggests that our protein needs go up, not down, as we age. More protein means more lean mass and better bone density, especially if you’re also doing resistance training. Shoot for at least 1 palm-sized portion of protein at most meals. More protein can also help with skin quality as we age. Here’s more advice.
  • Phytoestrogens: The research on phytoestrogens in food (such as soy) suggests that they may help with hot flashes… or they may not. In other words, it’s not entirely clear. Feel free to experiment with adding soy to your diet, especially more traditional versions like fresh edamame, miso, and tempeh. These are consumed in Japan, China, and other Southeast Asian countries, where women have much lower rates of hot flashes.

If you have a family history of breast cancer and/or the BRCA gene, check with your doctor before adding estrogenic foods.

  • Hydration: Drink plenty of water and keep your salt intake moderate. This can help with water retention and breast tenderness, which can fluctuate over your cycle, as well as skin quality.
  • Vitamin D: Some evidence suggests that vitamin D can lessen perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms. Get your D levels checked, and if they’re low, either book that tropical vacation you’ve always wanted (hey, it’s for medical reasons), or supplement. Vitamin D is also important for maintaining bone health.
  • Caffeine: Notice whether caffeine in coffee, tea, energy drinks, dark chocolate or medications (such as painkillers) triggers or exacerbates any symptoms you have, such as breast tenderness or migraines. Experiment with reducing or avoiding caffeine to see if it’s worth the trade-off.
  • Flaxseed: Flaxseeds are rich in plant compounds called lignans. With the help of intestinal bacteria, lignans can be converted to weak estrogens (enterodiol and enterolactone) which may help reduce menopausal symptoms.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids:  Omega-3 fatty acids (2-6 grams a day) may help with some symptoms, like hot flashes, depressive symptoms, and memory decline. There also may be added benefit to starting supplementation before the onset of perimenopause, although the research is unclear. Including high-quality fats in your diet may also help with skin changes.
  • Iron: If you’ve stopped menstruating, you’ll need less iron (down to about 8 mg a day), unless you’re doing something else that increases iron needs, like Ultimate Fighting. (Pfff, after 30 odd years of monthly bloodshed, a nosebleed doesn’t even make you blink.)
  • Calcium: For bone health, calcium needs increase during menopause to about 1200 mg a day, preferably from food sources such as quality dairy products; cooked dark leafy greens; bone-in canned salmon or sardines; or calcium-fortified foods.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is important for calcium metabolism and also helps preserve bone health. Supplemental magnesium (200 – 400 mg / day) may also help alleviate hormone-related cramps and migraines.

Strategy #2: Approach alcohol intake mindfully.

The image of middle-aged women who love wine has become a cultural cliché.

You’ve seen the t-shirts at those tacky souvenir shops. “Wine is for women what duct tape is for men: It fixes everything!” they read in bold pink letters.

But although a buttery Chardonnay goes nicely with fish, it doesn’t necessarily pair well with our bodies, especially as we age and our livers become less efficient at processing it.

Limiting alcohol consumption may help reduce inflammation, as well as your risk of breast cancer and other diseases.

How to do it:

Notice where, when, how, and with whom you drink. Are there certain triggers — like work functions, or your friend Marie — that always seem to end with you having a strong urge to dance on (or lie under) the table?

Notice what happens if you think about (or actually do) stop drinking for a week or two.

There’s no “right” amount to drink. You may choose to drink less for your health, or you may drink more because you genuinely enjoy it and want to prioritize pleasure.

Either way, drinking should always be a calm and conscious choice, rather than an obligation or compulsion.

Strategy #3: Commit to regular exercise that you truly enjoy.

Exercise (moving at moderate intensity 2-4 times per week for 30-60 minutes per session) seems to help with menopausal symptoms like cramps associated with changing menstrual cycles and inflammation, though it varies from woman to woman.

Women who have lower fitness levels going into exercise sessions may be less likely to see a benefit, which has made interpreting the impact of exercise more difficult.

Still, regular exercise is your best shot at having a healthy, strong, functional body composition. This means lots of protective lean mass (like strong muscles and bones) and less body fat (especially the more risky stuff around your internal organs, called visceral fat). It also means a lower risk of disease, including breast cancer.

How to do it:

You may have less time to exercise right now, which means you’ll have to get creative about squeezing in movement when you can.

Or maybe you have more time. Your 20-year-old son may still live at home but it’s time he does his own laundry… because you’re off to Zumba.

Here are some guidelines to consider for exercising during menopause:

  • If you still love intense workouts, recognize that you’ll need more recovery. And have a good physiotherapist on speed dial.
  • Whether it’s a full yoga routine or simply a 5-minute mobility warmup, make sure to include regular joint mobility / injury-prevention type movements to keep joints lubricated and flexible.
  • Do some weight-bearing movements / resistance training at least 2-3 times a week. This tells your bones, muscles, and connective tissues that you need them to stay dense and strong.
  • Start where you are. If you’re just picking up an exercise habit for the first time in midlife, start gently. In women who are sedentary, yoga may be a good activity to start with and has been shown to improve quality of life in menopausal women.
  • Consider making it social. Many of us are more likely to stick with things if we have accountability, support, and community. Join a class or group, or find a workout buddy. Or get a dog. Their toilet is outside, so they’re always motivated for a walk.
  • Keep cool. Your body is having a tough time regulating your temperature, so exercise in a cool place and drink cool fluids.
  • Consult with a physiotherapist who specializes in pelvic rehab if you’re noticing you’re peeing during squats, jump rope, or other movements, or if you’re having pelvic pain under load.
  • If you use a trainer / coach, make sure they understand how to train a body at midlife. They should be able to balance challenge with respect for any limitations you have.
  • Have fun. That’s an order.

Strategy #4: Practice self-compassion, especially when it comes to your body.

When your sleep is disrupted by a hot flash that rivals the fires of Mount Vesuvius, or when you’re urging your hips into jeans that used to feel roomy and now feel like sausage casings, it’s understandable to feel angry and frustrated. Or even sad.

At midlife, you will put on more body fat. As ovarian production of estradiol (a type of estrogen) shuts down, our body relies on our adipose (fat) tissue (along with a few other types of tissue) to produce similar hormones.

We actually need that extra bump in our rump to keep us healthy as we age.

And it turns out, there’s a “sweet spot” for our body composition.

While having enough body fat will maintain hormonal health, too much body fat increases our risk of estrogen-dependent cancers (e.g. ovarian and breast cancer) as well as other metabolic diseases.

So, it’s important for your health to be conscious of your body composition, but it’s also key to make peace with your body as it is now.

How to do it:

Forget about the celebrities that somehow look 25 when they’re 55. They pay a team of surgeons, personal trainers, stylists, and magical wizards to keep them camera-ready.

Define what “fitness” and “health” mean for you.

Decide what you value, in terms of your physical self.

Maybe you value strength more than aesthetics, and maybe you don’t. (Although it does feel good to know you can open any pickle jar life throws at you.)

Your body will change. You will look different. Whatever you feel you’ve lost, mourn it.

Punch and cry snottily into your pillow. Burn an effigy. Do whatever you need to do to herald the end of the old and the beginning of now.

Then, consider what a sane, realistic, and achievable set of expectations and goals for yourself look like right now. (If you aren’t sure, check out The Cost of Getting Lean.)

Approach these goals with self-compassion rather than self-criticism.

Strategy #5: Prioritize and schedule recovery and sleep.

When things don’t go the way we want, most of us do more and push harder.

For example, if your waistline has changed despite being a regular exerciser and mindful eater, you may (understandably) think it makes sense to add more and higher intensity exercise, combined with less food on your plate.

Grrr, that should do it.

But it doesn’t.

While you may not think of exercise as a stressor, it is.

Exercise requires your body to work harder. And work = stress (even when it’s “good” stress.)

With every stressor you add on, you also need proportionate recovery from it.

Restricting food is also a stressor. Women who worry about limiting food intake to manage body weight tend to have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, than women who don’t.

Add that to the sleep disruptions so common in menopause (between 40-60 percent of women going through menopause have poor sleep quality or insomnia), and your “stress bucket” is getting pretty full.

Lower estrogen levels also means your body has a decreased capacity to deal with stress. That bucket fills up quicker than it used to.

Even though many stressors are good for us (like exercise, learning, and change), they only make us stronger if we give ourselves the chance to recover from them.

Not getting enough recovery and sleep can also contribute to pain, inflammation, and age-related skin changes.

How do to it:

Check in with yourself. Are you exhausted? Are your workouts feeling like a heavy slog?

If so, try this radical idea: Take a week off from the gym. Focus on activities that are less intense and more pleasurable. Like taking your dog for a walk in the park, or paddling around in the pool.

When you go back to the gym, notice how you feel. Do you have more energy? Or a renewed sense of interest? Are your muscles feeling stronger or less achey?

Play around with exercise frequency and intensity. Try reducing the number of sessions a week or decreasing the intensity of a few sessions. Replace some higher intensity weight training or cardio sessions with lower intensity sessions like yoga or long walks.

Every month or so, schedule a “recovery week”. For that week, decrease exercise volume, or skip the gym altogether and just engage in gentler movement like stretching, foam rolling, tai chi, or quiet hikes in nature.

Sleep is also a key part of recovery. If you have difficulty sleeping, here are some things to try:

  • See what you can do to reduce hot flashes, which can disrupt sleep.
  • See a therapist who specializes in sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy or hypnosis designed specifically for insomnia can be effective.
  • Try exercise like yoga, weight training, or brisk walks, which can improve chronic insomnia in perimenopausal women.
  • Experiment with natural remedies like valerian root, tart cherry juice, and isoflavones (from soy), which may improve sleep.
  • Talk to your doctor. Certain prescription medications, such as hormone replacement therapy or low-dose SSRI’s can help.
  • Get a massage. Because anything that makes you drool from bliss and relaxation is good.
  • Many women even opt for a separate bedroom if they have a partner whose flailing and snoring is making their already-fragile sleep unworkable.

Strategy #6: Take steps to manage your stress.

You may find that, compared to your younger years, you just don’t care as much about what people think of you. This can be hugely stress-relieving.

But thanks to all the changes you’re going through, you may also be dealing with feelings you’re not used to, sometimes swinging wildly.

Unmanaged stress can have a negative impact on your sex life, brain function, pain and inflammation, and overall disease risk — not to mention your overall quality of life.

How to do it:

Coaching or counseling, mindfulness or relaxation practices, and other mental health strategies can dramatically improve your existing mental health or preserve the wellbeing you have. Mindfulness and relaxation practices can also help manage pain.

If the mood fluctuations or psychological distress are severe and causing problems with your daily-life function, consider consulting a mental health professional. For instance:

  • You might consider getting coaching or counseling.
  • You might consider speaking to your doctor or psychiatrist about antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.
  • Also discuss these feelings with your doctor or psychiatrist if you’re on hormone replacement therapy.

Your mental state also affects your sexuality.

Setting aside time for yourself, learning to have healthy relationships, and practicing good “intimacy habits” can also help you feel juicy and sexy. Consider looking at other factors in your life and relationships to see if you can bring some calm, joy, and ooh-la-la back.

Speaking of relationships, consider which ones are serving you right now. Are there any relationships that you need to let go of, or adjust so that they feel healthier?

At this point in life, it’s helpful to be willing to let go of (and grieve, if necessary) old patterns and identities. Maybe your primary identity used to be “Mom”, and that doesn’t fit as well anymore now that your kids have moved out and you’re itching for adventure.

Be open to stepping into new versions of yourself and new ways of relating.

Menopause can be a gift… it kinda means you “made it”.

Many of our prehistoric ancestresses didn’t survive past the age of 40.

In some ways, making it past the childbearing years and into the “wise elder” years is a luxury.

While men can theoretically reproduce until they die (um, not that we’re recommending that), menopause signals the end of a woman’s ability to have children.

It’s kinda like nature is telling us, “Nah, it’s time for you to do you now. The rest of your life is for you.

Hm. Why thank you, Mother Nature.

What will you do with that gift, that wide open space of possibility?

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

Don’t worry about fixing everything… or anything.

Remember, you aren’t broken.

Menopause is a normal, inevitable, adaptive stage of womanhood.

You’re totally allowed to sink into the hammock of biology and let your body work this out without intervention.

If you are considering positive changes to feel better, pick one small thing at a time.

Practice that change consistently, then add on more if / when you feel ready.

Keep a journal of your experience.

Write your own Owner’s Manual. You’re the expert on you.

If you have a symptom that’s especially vexing, consider tracking it and notice any patterns. For example, you may notice that when you have coffee, your cramps are worse. Or every time you watch CNN, you get a hot flash.

Get to know the natural rhythms of your body over time by gently and non-judgmentally noticing and recording what comes up.

Use your emotions as tools (instead of being possessed by them).

Just like puberty, menopause is a time of intense hormonal flux, and corresponding emotional and physical changes.

But unlike your 15-year-old self, you are now a grown-up ladyperson, and you can choose to make use of the feelings that come up, instead of being owned by them.

When sadness comes up, you might look at what you need to grieve or let go of. When anger comes up, you might look at what needs to be protected or spoken up for. When fear comes up, you might look at what needs to be reassured or supported.

Use your emotions as tools to learn more about yourself, and to create a life that feels good for you.

Talk to other women.

Whether it’s a coach, a wise mentor, your mom, a friend, or that lady at the gym who just seems friendly and healthy, find and talk to older women about their experiences.

Not only will this give you practical advice (“Always dress in layers; never wear a pleather unitard”), it will also give you a feeling of support, normalcy, and sisterhood.

Several Precision Nutrition coaches have personal experience with perimenopause / menopause, or at least have coached hundreds of women through it.

Distribute your “craps given” wisely.

Perimenopause and menopause, with all its changes, may feel a little overwhelming for some.

Which is why you’re allowed to take some things off your plate.

Maybe you don’t give a crap anymore about “always being polite”.

Maybe you don’t give a crap anymore about fitting into a size X dress.

Maybe you don’t give a crap anymore about achieving “eternally youthful skin”.

You’re allowed to not care about whatever you don’t want to care about anymore.

Leave your caring for stuff you really care about.

Assemble your support team.

Think of the kind of support you need to be your best self at this stage of life.

You’ll probably want some loving friends or family members to talk to or reassure you.

A good family doctor or OBGYN you feel comfortable discussing all the gory bits helps too.

Add on whatever else you need, such as:

  • A physiotherapist to help your pelvic muscles perform.
  • A trainer to help you move safely and joyfully. (Maybe a boxing coach who can help you channel that pent-up rage healthily.)
  • A coach or therapist to talk through difficult feelings.
  • A naturopath, nutritionist, or dietician to help you figure out what foods will support your health.
  • A “menopause mentor” who will remind you that you’re not going crazy.
  • And so on.

Gather your posse, and conquer.

If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes through all life stages — including menopause — is an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools you need to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with over 100,000 clients and patients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

The post ‘What’s happening to my body!?’ 6 lifestyle strategies to feel your best during menopause. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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Forgetting things, feeling incapable, grappling with loneliness, and maybe not enjoying daily life? Aging is inevitable, but these symptoms don’t have to be. Whether you’re noticing them in yourself, or coaching someone who is, here’s what you need to know about the importance of lifestyle and nutrition for seniors — plus 7 effective strategies to live not just longer, but better.

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When my grandfather’s health started to decline, a simple intervention transformed his ability to live independently.

I’ve been coaching nutrition for over 10 years, and teaching university nutrition courses for seven. I’ve seen thousands of people benefit tremendously from the health strategies I share with them.

But no transformation has been as dramatic or inspiring my grandfather’s.

A few years ago, in his early eighties, my grandfather began to forget things. He missed appointments and misplaced objects like his keys or reading glasses. His appetite decreased, and he started losing weight.

One day, he suffered a bad fall. He required hospitalization, and his confusion and disorientation worsened during his stay. It was a low point for my family.

A professional medical assessment determined that it was no longer safe for him to live independently at home. He got placed on a waiting list for a long-term care facility.

My grandpa’s diet had been poor for some time. I knew he was living mostly on canned soup, chocolate milk, and the occasional banana. Not nearly enough calories, and not a lot of nutrient-dense, whole foods.

I wondered what effect that was having on him.

So I did some detective work.

After running some blood tests, we discovered that my grandfather was very deficient in a range of B-vitamins, particularly vitamin B1, or thiamine.

The signs of thiamine deficiency?

Low appetite, fatigue, memory loss, and confusion.

I suspected that correcting these deficiencies might help my grandpa function better, so I put him on a high-quality seniors’ multivitamin, and recommended a few simple changes to his diet.

A week later, my grandfather was transformed.

His appetite increased, and he became clear-thinking and lucid. He was released from the hospital, and his medical team approved his ability to keep living independently.

My grandpa’s experience is proof of something many people aren’t aware of:

Simple nutrition and lifestyle changes can dramatically improve quality of life — even in older adults.

That’s why, in this article, we’ll explain what we know about optimal lifestyle and nutrition for seniors: how these habits affect aging; and how to implement healthy changes for yourself, clients, or loved ones.

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It’s not just the number of years you live; it’s how you live them.

Modern medicine can help us live longer, so what’s the point of eating the right foods and taking the right supplements?

Well,  we don’t want to just live longer. We want to live longer and live well.

Lifespan: 
How long you live

Healthspan: 
How well you live

When we talk about longevity, most of us don’t dream of living for a thousand years in a cryo-chamber hooked up to a bunch of wires that artificially maintain our basic functions.

In addition to a long lifespan, we also want a long healthspan — a high quality of life for as long as possible — a state that allows us to travel and enjoy our retirement, to run around with our grandchildren without aches and pains, and to generally enjoy life feeling good in our bodies, minds, and hearts.

Good nutrition and lifestyle habits are our best tools to improve healthspan.

And while these habits can have a major effect on healthspan if you start them young, making nutrition and lifestyle changes can make a difference even after you’ve noticed signs of aging.

Now, these changes aren’t going to turn you into an ageless bionic superhuman, but they can certainly help you age better and become more resilient.

Which parts of aging are under our control?

From the moment we’re born, our bodies begin to change. These changes continue throughout life.

Yes, change is inevitable…

…but how and when we age is highly influenced by our lifestyle.

Most of us have great bodies at 18 — slim, pain-free, resistant to illness and injury. By 68, we might groan about our soft midsection, our bum knee, or our high blood sugar.

We might call these changes “aging”. But much of what we call “aging” is actually very much an accumulation of lifestyle habits.

The soft midsection, the bum knee, the high blood sugar are often the result of:

  • a chronic sweet tooth;
  • a lifetime of following the “always finish your plate” rule — no matter how big the plate; and
  • lots of sitting, which allowed those knee-supporting muscles to atrophy.

Another 68-year-old who practiced habits like mindful eating, regular movement, strength training, and a nutritious diet might not see those symptoms appear until much later, or perhaps ever.

Let’s take an even deeper look…

Conditions that occur in the elderly

Some health issues occur almost exclusively in advanced age. While many factors contribute to these, lifestyle and nutrition habits can play a role in when, and to what degree, these issues manifest.

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Arthritis

Arthritis is characterized by inflammation of the joints. Although there are many types of arthritis, the two most common forms are rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the joint tissues. This results in pain, swelling, and redness.

Osteoarthritis occurs due to the chronic wear and tear of joints, resulting in pain that ranges from minor to debilitating. Risk factors include previous joint injury, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Because inflammation lies at the root of both types of arthritis, consuming a diet high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s and antioxidants may help support a healthy immune system response and moderate symptoms.

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Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative condition. Brain cells, or neurons, get damaged, which reduces their ability to communicate. This results in memory problems, mood dysregulation, difficulties with language, and sometimes physical disability.

Although Alzheimer’s disease is not fully understood, we know that it tends to run in families, which hints at a genetic link.

Some researchers have suggested that Alzheimer’s could be called “Type 3 diabetes” because chronically elevated blood sugar (and insulin) seems to increase inflammation, as well as influence the size/development of the hippocampus (a brain structure essential to learning and memory).

In order to preserve brain health, take care of the body as a whole: Exercise regularly, consume a nutritious diet, manage blood sugar, and reduce or eliminate smoking and / or excessive alcohol consumption.

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Cataracts

Cataracts occur when the lens of the eye gets clouded with clumps of protein or yellow-brown pigment.

Symptoms can include blurry vision, trouble seeing with bright lights, trouble seeing at night, and reduced ability to distinguish colors. In advanced cases, a person with cataracts may have trouble driving, reading, and recognizing faces. If left untreated, cataracts can even result in blindness.

Age increases the risk of cataracts, as does smoking, excessive unprotected sun exposure, heavy alcohol consumption, and diabetes.

Consuming a diet high in antioxidants (which often come from dark green, purple, and orange fruits and vegetables) provides nutrients that keep the eyes healthy.

In older age, good nutrition is more important than ever.

Older age brings with it special nutrition concerns and requirements.

In older age, energy needs decrease but nutrition needs increase.

In general, because of the physical and lifestyle changes that tend to go along with aging, the need for overall calories is decreased.

However, the need for nutrition, in the form of nutrient-dense, well-absorbed foods and targeted supplementation, is more important than ever.

Water

Dehydration risk is higher among older adults. This may be due to side effects from prescription medications, or a reduced sense of thirst (more pronounced in those with Alzheimer’s disease or those who have suffered a stroke).

Dehydration:

  • worsens constipation;
  • increases risk of bladder infection and kidney injury;
  • thickens mucus in lungs, aggravating  asthma or lung conditions; and
  • reduces mental performance and increases fatigue.

Older adults should consume 2-3 liters of liquids per day in the form of water (ideally), herbal teas, broths, or liquid-based foods like smoothies and soups. Adjust amounts as needed according to medication requirements, if applicable.

Use the below chart to assess hydration levels.

Note: Certain medications, B-vitamins can darken or change the color of urine.

Tip: To increase water consumption, leave written reminders around the house, or set a timer to go off every 1-2 hours during the day reminding you to drink water. For those with mobility issues (who have trouble getting up to drink) or tremors (who have trouble holding a glass steady), have caretakers make water easily accessible, and use appropriate drinking containers (e.g. cups with spill proof lids, or straws to help those with diminished strength or shaky hands).

Vitamin & Minerals

Studies show that people with a high intake of antioxidant vitamins (especially from nutrient-dense whole foods) generally have a lower risk of major chronic disease, such as heart attack or stroke.

While most vitamin and mineral needs increase with age due to poor absorption or interactions with medications, some needs decrease.

Vitamin A

Absorption of vitamin A increases with aging, so vitamin A (retinol) should be avoided in supplement form. In older individuals, getting vitamin A through foods is best.

Adults should aim to get about 2,000-2,500 IU of vitamin A per day, from retinol rich food sources like liver, dairy products, and fish. For carotenoids, the plant form of vitamin A, see recommendations below.

Vitamin B12

As we get older, we get less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12, which supports brain and nervous system health. Deficiency is confirmed via blood test. Symptoms include: fatigue, dizziness or loss of balance, and reduced mental function.

Adults need 2.4 mcg of B12 a day from food sources like eggs, dairy products, meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, and B12 fortified foods.

If supplementation is needed (which can be confirmed by a blood test), opt for B12 options that get absorbed directly into the bloodstream, like injections, or drops/lozenges that dissolve under the tongue. To correct a deficiency, supplement with 1,000 mcg a day until normal levels are restored.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is involved in immune system, hormone, bone, and brain health. As we age, our synthesis of vitamin D from sun exposure declines. Especially in northern climates, vitamin D deficiency is extremely common. Moderate sun exposure and vitamin D supplements are recommended, as vitamin D does not occur naturally in high amounts in food.

Adults should take between 800 – 4000 IU of vitamin D a day, depending on the degree of deficiency. Because vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning it’s only absorbed in the presence of fat, take supplement with food that contains fat.

Carotenoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E

These vitamins have antioxidant properties and are important for keeping tissues healthy and free from disease. In particular, the lens of eye is easily oxidized, leading to macular degeneration and cataracts.

Especially in the case of vitamin E and beta-carotene, avoid supplements, as they have been shown in studies to be ineffective or even harmful, particularly for smokers and those at risk for heart disease. Therefore, it’s best to get these nutrients from food.

Carotenoids are rich in orange and yellow colored plants, like sweet potato, squash, and carrots, as well as dark leafy greens, such as spinach, beet greens, or kale.

Vitamin E can be found in nuts, seeds, nut butters, and wheat germ.

Vitamin C requirements can be easily obtained by consuming a variety of fresh (uncooked) fruits and vegetables every day.

Calcium

We need calcium to regulate heart rate and maintain bone mass, but absorption declines with age.

Men and women aged 50 and older should get 1200 mg of calcium per day. Prioritize calcium intake through whole food sources, such as dairy products, cooked greens, and calcium-fortified foods.

Iron

Iron deficiency can result in low energy, poor concentration, and dizziness. Iron status generally improves later in life, especially in women after menstruation.

However, iron deficiency is still possible, usually due to low food intake, chronic blood loss from ulcers or hemorrhoids, poor absorption, antacid use, or the use of certain medications.

Men and non-menstruating women should aim to get about 8 mg of iron per day, from red meats; organ meats; clams and oysters; beans and lentils; and cooked dark leafy greens.

If iron deficiency is confirmed, supplementation may be required.

Caution: Before taking an iron supplement, confirm via a blood test that iron is low. Iron taken in excess of requirements is toxic. If iron deficiency is confirmed, adults should take 10-30 mg of elemental iron 1-3 times a day, depending on the degree of deficiency.

Zinc

Zinc deficiency is common in older people and can depress appetite and blunt sense of taste, making eating less enjoyable. Many medications can worsen zinc deficiency.

Adults should try to get between 8-11 mg of zinc a day, from food sources such as oysters; mussels; meat; pumpkin seeds; and beans, peas, and lentils.

If diet is restricted or if a person is on medications that deplete zinc levels, supplementation may also be appropriate.

Tip: To make things easier, you don’t have to supplement each of these individually. Rather, look for a multivitamin-mineral supplement formulated specifically for seniors, which should exclude vitamin A. Choose liquid formulas if swallowing is difficult or if digestion is impaired.  

For help choosing products, third-party rating sites like Examine and Labdoor provide unbiased, evidence-based suggestions for the most effective supplements and brands.

Protein, Carbohydrates & Fats

Macronutrient needs, and the way our bodies metabolizes macronutrients, change as we get older. The ideal macronutrient balance for someone who is 25 may be different from the ideal balance for someone who is 75.

Protein

As we age, we may develop “anabolic resistance”, which is when protein synthesis decreases. In other words, we need more protein to do the same job.

Healthy older people should aim to get 
at least 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Malnourished or ill seniors should aim to get 
1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or more with severe illness.

For a person who weighs 68kg (150lbs), that translates to about 80-100g of protein, or about 4-5 palm-sized servings of protein per day.

The only caution is in those with kidney problems. In those cases, consult with a doctor, Registered Dietician, or other certified nutrition professional, to determine appropriate amounts.

Choose proteins that are soft and easy to digest, such as stewed meats or poultry, soft cooked fish, well-cooked legumes, scrambled eggs, and good quality protein powders.

Carbohydrates

Good quality carbohydrates help meet energy needs and add fiber to the diet, which prevents constipation.

Aim to get about 25 grams of fiber a day from soft, easy to digest carbohydrates such as well-cooked whole grains and porridges, well-cooked legumes, well-cooked root vegetables, fruits, and powdered fibre supplements.

Fats

Fats play an important role in inflammation regulation.

Reduce or eliminate trans fats (which tend to be high in processed foods), and moderate saturated fats (like animal fats) and lesser quality omega-6 fats (like corn or soybean oil).

Encourage good quality omega-6 (like extra virgin olive oil and avocado) and omega-3 fats (from foods like sardines, mackerel, salmon, herring, anchovies, flax, chia, hemp seeds, and walnuts). Aim for about three servings of fat-rich foods per day, from a mix of quality sources.

Tip: Consume a colorful, balanced, whole foods diet. Prioritize nutrient-dense foods first, but don’t be militant about removing all treats; pleasure is important too!

Let’s take an even deeper look…

Evidence-based supplements* that help

There are lots of bottles and potions on the shelves claiming to reverse age, smooth wrinkles, erase pain, and promote longevity.

Many of these supplements are poorly researched and may be at best, a waste of money, and at worst, harmful to one’s health.

Here’s a list of evidence-based supplements that are particularly useful in the older years:

  • Multivitamin (senior’s formula with low or no vitamin A): Promotes general health; reduces the risk of illness and micronutrient deficiency.
  • Probiotics: Improves digestion and immunity.
  • Fiber: Reduces constipation and helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol.
  • Vitamin D: Reduces risk of chronic disease, particularly osteoporosis and cancer.
  • Omega 3: Modulates inflammation and contributes to eye, skin, and brain health.
  • Protein & Creatine: Helps preserve lean tissue (muscle and bone mass); decreases frailty.
  • Digestive enzyme: Aids breakdown of food, easing digestion and enhancing absorption of nutrients.
  • Glucosamine: Preserves and builds healthy joint tissue; may reduce pain in osteoarthritis.

*Please note that supplements quality can vary greatly. Shop at stores you trust with high product turnover, and look for supplements that are free of artificial sweeteners, coloring, flavoring, and ingredients that you don’t recognize. Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from knowledgeable health store staff. Additionally, third-party rating sites like Examine and Labdoor provide unbiased, evidence-based suggestions for the most effective supplements and brands.

7 habits that can help you age well.

Luckily, we now have research on the specific factors that can help you live a healthy, enjoyable, meaningful life, longer.

In a variety of large-scale population studies, these seven lifestyle habits are consistently correlated with lower disease rates, better mood and well-being, and increased longevity.

The earlier you start, the better, but these habits can make a difference no matter your current age.

Practice these habits consistently, and transform the experience of aging.

1. Keep moving.

For relatively little cost or time (about 30 minutes a day), exercise is one of the most impactful things we can do for our health.

As we age, our metabolism declines and our bodies don’t use nutrients as well.

Exercise signals the body to:

  • use nutrients and balance blood sugar;
  • build and repair bone and muscle tissue; and
  • circulate blood, nutrients, and oxygen, including to the brain.

Regular exercise is correlated with lower rates of:

  • Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity
  • Arthritis and bone fractures
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Fatigue
  • Overall mortality

Additionally, exercise improves mood and well-being. This is especially true if exercise is social, like walking with a friend or attending group classes.

Common challenges seniors face with moving

When muscles aren’t used, they atrophy: Moving around becomes harder, making it more likely that a person will continue being sedentary.

Also, embarking on an exercise program might sound intimidating and inaccessible: Whether due to pain, injury, illness, or just a history of being sedentary, it may be difficult or scary to begin an activity program.

Action steps that can help

  • Start with gentle activities. This reduces the risk of injury or heart attack. Opt for low impact activities, such as swimming, recumbent biking, or walking on grass or dirt rather than pavement. Even when mobility is reduced or compromised, exercise can be made accessible and can benefit health tremendously.
  • Find an activity that feels fun. And one that can be done consistently. This can include: gardening or yard work, walking, swimming, climbing stairs, yoga, tai chi, cleaning the house, or doing light weight circuits.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remember that “moderate to vigorous” is a subjective measure. What a 25-year-old personal trainer defines as “moderate to vigorous” may be very different from how an 85-year-old beginner exerciser defines it. The right level of activity should leave the exerciser feeling out of breath, but still able to hold a conversation.
  • Ease into exercise. About 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day is ideal, but benefits appear after only 10 minutes of movement per day! A good program will incorporate some endurance training (like walking fast), some weight bearing activities (like doing bicep curls with soup cans), and some balance training (like practicing standing on one foot, or doing yoga).

2. Eat healthy meals.

The foods we eat literally make up our bodies. If we are missing important nutrients, our bodies are more vulnerable to damage or illness.

Although all nutrients are important, two get are critical during the older years:

  • Protein is especially crucial because it helps to preserve valuable lean tissue (muscle and bone). Higher lean tissue reduces frailty, falls, and fractures, all of which are associated with poorer quality of life and earlier death.
  • Antioxidants are like the body’s defense team. Aging is partly due to an accumulation of daily attacks from free radicals from pollution, household chemicals, too much sun, or lifestyle habits like smoking, eating lots of processed foods, or excessive drinking.

Antioxidants protect our body from free radical damage, and slow down the aging process. With a regular supply of antioxidants through wholesome meals abundant in colorful plant foods, we’re less vulnerable to cataracts, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and more.

Aim for five servings of vegetables and fruits a day — and choose a variety of colors! Different colors (red, purple, green, orange, etc.) often relate to different nutrient compounds, so the more colorful the “rainbow” you’re consuming, the more nutrients you’re getting.

Common challenges seniors face with eating healthy

Poor appetite can lower food intake and the enjoyment of food: This may be caused by medication side effects, illness, or nutrient deficiencies. If a person has frequent digestive upset, they may be (understandably) resistant to trying new foods or eating anything that has triggered them in the past.

The individual may have dentures or weak teeth: If dentures are ill-fitting (this can happen after extreme weight gain or loss) or teeth are weak, it can be difficult and painful to chew.

It might be harder to shop for or prepare food: Frequent obstacles include trouble walking, carrying groceries, or holding a knife steady due to shaky hands.

Energy or mood is low: Fatigue, anxiety, or depression can make it challenging to find motivation to prepare meals. Elderly living alone and eating in isolation are especially vulnerable.

Many older individuals no longer have an income: That means the highest quality foods may not be accessible to them.

Certain generations may carry strong ideas about nutrition: For example, some may habitually avoid fats, feel they must “clean the plate”, or believe in dessert after every meal, because that’s how they grew up eating.

Action steps that can help

  • Prioritize consumption of whole foods to increase nutrition. These include fruits and vegetables, legumes, meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • Focus on soft, well-cooked, or pureed / blended foods. Try scrambled eggs, poached fish, mashed vegetables, avocado, yogurt, smoothies, and soups, which are easier to digest.
  • Try food supplements. Protein powders, green powders, fiber powders, and fish oil can be useful for increasing nutrition.
  • If budget allows, sign up for a grocery or meal delivery service. This can make food preparation much easier.
  • Choose quick and easy to prepare foods when grocery shopping. Opt for pre-made high quality soups, pre-cut fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, or pre-cooked proteins.
  • Don’t forget pleasure. Look for ways to increase enjoyment while eating: Choose foods that appeal; set the table with nice linens, silverware, and flowers; eat slowly and savour food; and allow small treats if desired. A small bowl of hazelnut gelato after dinner a couple times a week makes life just a bit more delicious!

3. Achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

According to research, there is a BMI “sweet spot” for the elderly.

Seniors with a BMI between 25 and 32 have the lowest rates of mortality, and recover better from illness and infection.

Being overweight or underweight can pose a risk.

Too much body fat can be harmful. In particular, visceral fat around our internal organs is associated with higher inflammation, insulin resistance and high blood sugar, eye problems like cataracts or blindness, kidney damage, and cancer.

However, some fat can be protective. Having enough body fat helps a person recover better from wasting diseases like pneumonia, cancer, influenza, and digestive issues. Having some body fat is also correlated with a lowered risk of fracture during a fall.

Common challenges seniors face with finding a healthy weight

Elderly who are underweight may struggle to gain weight: This can be due to low appetite, which can be caused by medication side effects, digestion problems, or zinc deficiency (which reduces sense of taste and can make food taste metallic). Social isolation is also correlated with skipping meals and eating less nutritious meals.

Those who are overweight may struggle to lose weight: Again, medication side effects can contribute to weight gain. Sometimes, seniors are just eating like they did when they were younger — except now, they’re moving less and may have lost metabolically active tissue, like muscle, to use those calories.

The onset of retirement and the “empty nest” stage can change eating habits: More leisure time and less routine may mean eating frequently at restaurants, often accompanied by more alcoholic drinks.

Action steps that can help

If weight gain is needed:

  • Ensure protein requirements are getting met first. This macronutrient offers the biggest “return on investment” in terms of staying healthy and resilient as a senior.
  • Healthy fats are calorically dense and can easily increase calorie intake. Choose fats like extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nut butters, and full-fat dairy products like plain whole milk yogurt or aged hard cheeses.

If weight loss is needed:

  • Prioritize whole foods. These include fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and appropriate amounts of healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.

In all cases:

  • Avoid “diet rules” or forcing certain foods. If kale is unpalatable, take it off the table. If you want to have a cookie every now and then, enjoy that double chocolate chunk!

4. Get the right amount of sleep.

As we age, it’s normal to need less sleep, and to sleep less consistently. As a result, older people may have trouble falling or staying asleep, and/or may wake early.

However, at any age, adequate sleep is essential, and helps:

  • brain regeneration, improving memory and focus;
  • hormone and neurotransmitter regulation, keeping mood and appetite stable;
  • inflammation regulation, keeping the immune system healthy and balanced; and
  • recovery from stress, be it from emotional or physical sources.

In the older years, getting anywhere from 5 to 9 hours of sleep a day may be appropriate.


Sleeping enough helps keep us healthy, but sleeping too much can be a sign of illness.

If sleeping over 9 or 10 hours is becoming the norm, consult a physician. Excessive sleep can be a sign of nutrient deficiency (low iron and B12 can both cause fatigue), depression, infection, or serious illness.

Common challenges seniors face with getting the right amount of sleep

Changing sleep patterns throw people off: Although it’s normal to need less sleep in our older years, it may be difficult to adjust to a new sleep schedule.

Side effects from medication interrupt natural rhythms: Some medications may cause fatigue or wakefulness.

Worries about health, finances, or loved ones can also keep us up: If tossing and turning is chronic, get a full assessment of what’s preventing rest, including what’s weighing on the heart and mind.

Action steps that can help

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Setting up a good night’s sleep doesn’t just happen at night. Turn down the lights and disengage from stimulating activities about an hour before bed. Make your bedroom as dark as possible, and keep it cool (around 67 F / 19 C).
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid napping for more than an hour a day, or napping later in the day.
  • Create a comforting sleep routine. For example, have a bath, read some calming literature, or go for a slow walk outside.
  • Avoid spending time in bed while awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, leave the bed and do some restful activities, like reading or making a cup of tea; return to bed when you feel sleepy again.

Check out this article for more tips on getting a good night’s sleep.

5. Reduce or quit smoking.

To some it may be hard to believe, but many seniors grew up during a time when smoking was promoted as a healthy habit!

However, we now know smoking is undeniably linked to negative health outcomes — primarily lung diseases like asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer; and cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke.

Smoking dramatically increases our exposure to free radicals, which increase inflammation, damage the arteries, and advance physiological age.

The good news is:

It’s never too late to quit and the body begins to regenerate immediately.

Common challenges seniors face with stopping smoking

Cigarettes are addictive and smoking is hard to quit: If this habit has been maintained for decades, a person may find it hard to imagine their life without smoking.

Older people may wonder, what’s the point of quitting now?: This is why it’s important to understand that, no matter what age smoking is ceased, health benefits can occur almost immediately.

Action steps that can help

  • Take it slow. Smoking is often used as a way to cope with stress. Therefore, rather than simply yanking out this behavior, you may have better luck gradually replacing it with more productive coping mechanisms. Incorporate supportive stress management practices like massage, spending time with friends, or engaging in a creative hobby, and use them to slowly phase cigarettes out.
  • Avoid shaming. Whether you’re trying to quit yourself or helping a client quit, don’t resort to shaming or judgement. It‘s common knowledge that smoking is linked to poor health; a person who smokes needs a sense of hope, not a lecture. The body can regenerate at any age! That’s why there’s still value in quitting, and the benefits can be linked to meaningful goals. For example, being able to go on a long, vigorous walk with a beloved pet while able to breathe freely and clearly.
  • Seek support. Individuals trying to quit may also find benefit in joining support groups, seeking counseling, or trying other medical interventions under the care of their physician.

6. Moderate or eliminate alcohol.

Wait a second — isn’t red wine supposed to promote longevity?!

The research on alcohol consumption — even moderate consumption — is mixed. Most experts suggest that if you don’t drink already, don’t start.

Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to health problems in almost every part of the body:

  • Heart: Arrhythmias; high blood pressure; heart disease; stroke
  • Brain: Sleep disruption; depression; neurological damage; epilepsy; dementia; alcoholism (particularly if it runs in the family)
  • Immune system: More prone to infection / illness / lowered immune response; cancer (mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast); increased inflammation / flare-ups of autoimmune disorders
  • Liver and kidneys: Fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; fibrosis / cirrhosis; liver cancer; kidney disease
  • Metabolism: Osteoporosis and bone fractures; anemia; pancreatitis; changes to fat metabolism; muscle damage; interference with some medications

The body can’t store alcohol, so must prioritize clearing it. As the liver metabolizes that scotch on the rocks, the side effect is that it may delay or neglect other tasks — like digesting, absorbing, and storing other nutrients like proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

We want to be careful not to overburden the liver, so it’s free to do all the other important jobs it needs to do.

Common challenges seniors face with alcohol moderation

Not knowing what moderate drinking looks like: Many people may be in the “heavy drinking” category without even realizing it.

According to the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “moderate drinking” means, on average:

  • Women: Up to seven drinks per week, with no more than three drinks on any single day.
  • Men: Up to 14 drinks per week, with no more than four drinks on any single day.

And just so it’s clear what a “drink” is, here’s a guide:

Increased leisure time may mean increased drinking: Going out to restaurants more often may mean having a nice Chardonnay more often — or maybe even the occasional 9-hole beer bash at the golf club!

Alcohol may be used as a coping mechanism: People may drink to blunt chronic pain, loneliness, or anxiety.

Action steps that can help

  • Replace alcoholic beverages. Try water, sparkling water, or vegetable juices instead.
  • Experiment with other stress-reducing activities. If you’re having more than 1 to 2 drinks per night, and you have trouble stopping, try reflecting on how you cope with life stress. Instead of judgement or lecturing, approach this habit with curiosity and compassion. Consider replacing drinking with spending time in nature, getting together with family, or playing with a pet.
  • Don’t go it alone. As with smoking, people trying to quit or reduce alcohol consumption may also find benefit in joining support groups, seeking additional counselling, or trying other medical interventions under the care of their physician.

7. Connect with others.

When people are surveyed about the most meaningful aspects of their lives, they list good marriages, close family relationships, rich friendships, and lively work relationships.

Often, it’s the presence of other people, to love and be loved by, that enhances our reason to live.

Elderly who live in isolation are also most at risk for physical and psychological problems. Living alone may mean that there is no one to help if you fall, no one to talk to about joys or sorrows, and no one to help prepare food. As a result, elderly living alone may be more prone to injury, loneliness, and malnourishment.

All of these factors reduce lifespan, and more importantly, quality of life.

Meaningful human interaction:

  • gives a sense of purpose;
  • decreases subjective age;
  • improves mental health; and
  • makes life more fun and joyful.

Prioritize and enable regular connection with family, friends, and community members.

Common challenges seniors face with social connection

As age increases, individuals are more likely to experience loss: You lose a chance to connect when you lose friends, family members, beloved pets, or a spouse (which is especially correlated with a sharp increase in mortality).

Living in a long-term care facility can be isolating: This can be especially difficult if social connections are not nurtured and enabled.

Eating in isolation is a red flag: When people eat alone, meals tend to be more repetitive, simple, and less nutritious.

Action steps that can help

  • Stay as independent as possible, but still highly connected. This enables both autonomy and support, which means experiencing plenty of meaning, richness, and joy in the later stages of life. Even if an individual has lost a loved one (or many), quality social connections are available and can be developed.
  • Prioritize social activities. Options include family potlucks, group fitness classes, bird watching meet-ups, live theater field trips with friends, or taking a course in a creative or intellectual endeavor with other like-minded peers.
  • Mix generations. Although the elderly may appreciate spending time with people of their own generation, younger generations can provide energy and newness to an elderly person’s life, and an elderly person can provide wisdom and perspective to a younger person’s life.

Reflect on your life, then take action.

My two sets of grandparents were very different.

One set had poor lifestyle habits, suffered from chronic disease, and died in their early seventies in a nursing home.

The other set stayed active, kept a vegetable garden that fed them many meals, and lived in a close community where they were able to help and be helped by neighbors and friends. This set lived well and independently on their farm into their mid-nineties.

When I think about my two sets of grandparents, I see the range of possibilities my genetics offer. Mostly, I see how powerfully lifestyle habits can affect quality of life.

There are lots of things we don’t have control over. But we do have control over many habits that have tremendous impact on our health and how we age.

I don’t aim for perfection, and don’t advocate anyone else does. But I do advocate for being proactive.

If you’re aging — and, ahem, that’s all of us — reflect on your family history, and your current habits. Consult the above list and focus on one thing to promote your healthspan. Practice that habit, and add more when and if you feel ready. All positive actions count, and no healthy step forward is too small.

If you’re a health professional, help your elderly clients or patients take action on these habits. Acknowledge the real-life constraints they have, but more importantly, highlight their strengths. The elderly have superpowers too — they made it here this far, after all!

And for everyone: You have today. What can you do to make the most of it?

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

If you’re elderly:

1. Simplify your life.

The later years are a great time to clarify what’s truly important.

It’s ok to let go of possessions, tasks, and even relationships that no longer bring you joy and meaning.

If you have the means, hire help! Get a trainer to help you move safely and regularly, a meal service to ensure your nutrition needs are being met, or a local youth to take care of minor house repairs and chores you no longer want to do.

This allows you to spend more time on the things you enjoy, hopefully with the people you really love spending time with.

2. Join a community.

Social interactions and good relationships give us purpose, joy, and connection. Connection with others is also linked to better physiological health.

Find like-minded people to connect with regularly, be it with classmates from a course you take, family, or just your neighbors down the street or down the hall.

And don’t be afraid to connect with the younger generation! If you’re not a grandparent by blood, you might be able to volunteer as one!

3. Embrace change.

Change is a constant.

Rather than resist it, learn to embrace it. Support whatever changes arise with compassion, openness, and resilience.

Many people find that developing a spiritual practice is nurturing during times of intense change.

This practice can be anything that supports you and brings you peace, whether it’s a daily walk in nature, regular time with a loved one to talk out hopes and fears, or a mindfulness practice like meditation or deep breathing.

4. Emphasize joy and meaning.

Do stuff you like!

Find ways to incorporate pleasure into your daily life.

Choose foods that you love and can savor. Get a massage or enjoy a special spa treatment. Read books that spark your curiosity and fill your heart with joy. Do something you’ve never tried but you’ve always wanted to do. Appreciate the beauty around you, whether it’s the light in a child’s face or the bright colors of your flower garden.

5. Give back

One of the best ways to feel good is to give to others.

As an older individual, you have a lifetime of perspective and wisdom that you can share with others.

Donate to charity, volunteer, or teach others something you’ve learned in your life. This could mean helping tutor adults in math at your local community centre, or teaching a younger family member how to make the famous family pierogi recipe.

Think of the legacy you want to share, and give it generously.

If you work with the elderly:

1. Do a full assessment of your clients’ health status, needs, wants, and situation.

Look at your client or patient holistically and in context.

Find out what and how they’re eating, what they do (if anything) for activity, what their living situation is like, what kind of support they have, where their mood and motivation is at, and what they do for fun.

If you don’t have access to a lab, work with an individual’s family doctor to get blood testing done to ensure that there aren’t any obvious nutritional deficiencies or abnormal blood markers.

Avoid “one-size-fits-all” prescriptions. There is no one “protocol for healthy seniors”. Just as in other stages of life, every elderly person is unique.

2. Focus on the positive and what can be done.

Working with the elderly may mean working with some limitations.

While these limitations should be respected, they shouldn’t be the focus.

Instead, focus on what a person is ready, willing, and able to do. Add habits that are simple and provide easy “wins” for your client, which can help restore confidence and optimism.

Focus on doing the basics, consistently and well, to add a sense of autonomy and to improve quality of life.

Habits that are high impact, yet simple include:

  • Eating protein at every meal; drinking enough water;
  • Increasing the consumption of colorful fruits and veggies; and
  • Adding 10-30 minutes of movement per day.

3. Treat the elderly with dignity and respect.

Like all clients, assume they are the expert.

Chances are, they’ve been on the earth much longer than you, and have made it pretty far on their own.

So don’t boss them around.

As a health professional, you are there to provide information and support. Offer guidance but also offer options. Make it clear that the reins are in your client’s hands.

4. Know your scope of practice.

Work with other health care providers if your client or patient is facing issues you are not trained to deal with.

When appropriate and with consent, connect with a person’s family doctor, or other health professionals on their team.

Working together, you can all help to best serve a person in their quest to live a long, meaningful, healthy life.

If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes — at any age — is an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools you need to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with over 100,000 clients and patients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

The post Nutrition for seniors: 7 lifestyle strategies to stay strong, healthy, and independent longer. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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Forget willpower: Brain signals drive what, how, and when we eat. If you’re eating too much, here’s how to take back control.

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It’s no secret that obesity rates have been rising in the U.S. (and other industrialized nations) for the past 30 years. It’s also no secret that Americans eat more than they used to; by almost 425 calories per day since the early ’80s.

For decades, government officials, research scientists, and fitness pros blamed this on a lack of willpower — folks’ inability to “push away from the table”. Diet book authors, TV doctors, and other nutrition experts tell us we’re gaining because of gluten. Fats. Fructose. Or whatever the nemesis of the day is.

But all this finger-wagging never really explains why.

Why are we eating so much food?

And why is it so hard to stop?

The answer lies in our brains.

You eat what your brain tells you to eat.

Ever open up a bag of chips planning to have a small snack, only to find yourself peering into an empty bag, just a few moments later?

Your brain is to blame.

Our rational, conscious brain thinks it’s in charge. “I eat what I want, when I want it. And I stop when I want to”. But we have a lot less control than that. Behind our decision-making processes are physiological forces we’re never even aware of.

You see, deeper brain physiology drives what, when, and how much we eat — along with its co-pilots of hormones, fatty acids, amino acids, glucose, and body fat. For the most part, our conscious selves just come along for the ride.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • how our brains dictate so many of our food choices;
  • how these physiological forces can lead to weight gain; and
  • what we can do to take the power back.

Why do we decide to eat?

Simply put, we eat for two reasons.

  • Homeostatic eating:
    We eat to get the energy our body needs, and to keep our biological system balanced (aka homeostasis).
  • Hedonic eating:
    We eat for pleasure (aka hedonism), or to manage our emotions.

Most meals are a mix of homeostatic and hedonic eating.

We do know that ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”, stimulates our appetite. It peaks just before meals, and falls during and immediately after eating.

Yet ghrelin is not the only factor in hunger or the decision to eat. For example, research shows that mice without ghrelin still eat regularly, just like the mice with ghrelin.

Although taking in nutrients is as old as biology, we still don’t know why and how humans get hungry and decide to start eating. Hunger and eating is shaped by many factors, including:

  • our genes
  • social cues
  • learned behavior
  • environmental factors
  • circadian rhythm
  • our hormones

As you can imagine, it’s complicated. So, science still doesn’t have “the secret” to hunger and eating. (Yet.)

We do, however, know a lot about why we stop eating.

Why do we stop eating?

Once we’ve started eating, what makes us stop?

This is in part influenced by satiation — the perception of fullness you get during a meal that causes you to stop eating.

(Satiety is sometimes used interchangeably with satiation, but the terms aren’t the same. Satiety is your perception of satisfaction, or reduced interest in food, between meals; satiation is your perception of fullness during a meal.)

When we eat a meal, two physiological factors work together to tell us to put down our fork and call it quits: gastric distension and hormonal satiation.

Gastric distension

When empty, your stomach can only hold about 50 mL. When you eat, the stomach can expand to hold 1000 mL (1 liter), or at the extreme end, 4000 mL (4 liters or 1 gallon).

Your stomach is designed to stretch and expand, aka gastric distension. Your stomach is also designed to tell your brain about how much stretching is happening.

As your stomach expands to accommodate the incoming food, neurons in your stomach send this message to your brain via the vagus nerve, which runs from your head to your abdomen.

At Precision Nutrition, we encourage people who want to lose fat to choose more nutritious yet low-energy and high-fiber foods, such as vegetables, beans, and legumes. Because these take up more stomach space, they can help us feel full, though we’re eating fewer calories.

Unfortunately, though, gastric distension isn’t the full picture.

Hormonal satiation

While you eat, your GI tract and related organs (like the pancreas) tell many areas of the brain that food is coming in. Some of these signals travel up the vagus nerve, while others enter the brain by different routes.

Some of the more important of these hormones are:

  • Cholecystokinin (CCK): When we eat fat and protein, the gut releases CCK, telling your brain (through the vagus nerve) to stop eating.
  • GLP-1 and amylin: Recent research indicates that GLP-1 may be the most unique, and important, satiation hormone. It seems to stimulate the production and release of insulin (a powerful satiation/satiety hormone itself) and slow down food moving from the stomach into the small intestine, among many other impressive mechanisms. Similarly, amylin is one of the few satiation/satiety hormones shown to actually reduce food intake.
  • Insulin: When we eat carbs and protein, we release insulin. This tells your brain that nutrients are coming in, and eventually tells it to stop eating.

Many of these hormonal messages stick around. They can tell us to eat less at later meals, too.

(This is why you should think about your food choices and eating habits in the long-term — over the course of a day, a few days, or even a week. For instance, a high-protein breakfast might prevent you from overeating at dinner.)

Together, these physiological responses (along with other hormones and signals) help you feel full and know when to stop eating.

Yet these still aren’t the complete picture, either.

Your brain also drives your food consumption over time.

What really matters to your weight and overall health, of course, is what you do consistently — i.e. what and how much you typically eat, day after day.

Your body has a system for managing your long-term energy and nutrient needs. It’s called the leptin feedback loop.

Leptin is a hormone that’s released by fat tissue. Leptin tells the brain how much energy we’ve just consumed and how much excess energy we have stored up (as fat). The more body fat we have, the more leptin in our blood.

The brain makes decisions based on leptin levels about hunger, calorie intake, nutrient absorption, and energy use and storage. Then, it cycles back to regulate leptin production in a loop that can help keep our energy (and body weight) balanced over time.

precision-nutrition-brain-tells-you-to-eat-leptin-1

Within this feedback loop, energy stores influence leptin and insulin concentrations in the blood. These signal the brain, which in turn sends out signals to influence energy expenditure, food intake, appetite, and nutrient absorption. These come full circle to influence energy storage.

If stored energy (fat) and leptin remain stable over time, we are more easily sated during and between meals. Smaller portions feel OK. And our metabolic rate stays high.

If stored energy (fat) and leptin drop over time, it sends a message to the brain (mainly the hypothalamus, which links your nervous system with your endocrine system) that we need to start preventing starvation.

The brain responds to lower leptin levels with several anti-starvation strategies:

  • We get hungry. Like real hungry. Like eat-your-own-arm hungry.
  • We move around less. Our NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), or our daily movement like fidgeting, standing up, and anything other than purposeful exercise, goes down. The couch starts looking better and better.
  • We burn fewer calories through movement as our skeletal muscles become more efficient.

It follows, then, that if stored energy (fat) and leptin go up over time, you’ll want to eat less… right?

Yes. Sort of.

Unfortunately, you can’t always count on that response.

How much leptin will go up when you start eating more varies from person to person. And how your brain responds to increased leptin levels also varies from person to person.

Clearly, people’s physiologies vary a lot. In some people, when leptin rises, their brain decreases their appetite, and increases their NEAT output. In others, the response isn’t nearly so robust.

That being said, most of the time, for most people:

The leptin feedback loop works well to naturally regulate our energy expenditure and consumption… until we disrupt it.

The food you eat can change your brain.

Assuming we’re properly nourished, that well-balanced leptin loop will tell us when we’ve have enough. It helps us feel sated and allows us to eat reasonable portions, comfortably.

But that nicely balanced loop can become disrupted — quickly — when we eat certain types of food.

A diet filled with hyper-palatable, hyper-rewarding, heavily processed foods can overthrow the the brain’s “stop” signals.

In plain English, this means so-called “junk foods” that are sweet, salty, creamy, and/or crunchy (maybe all at once), and full of chemical goodness that spins our pleasure dials… but contain relatively few actual nutrients.

This type of diet prevents leptin from doing its job of regulating our energy balance. It can even make our brains inflamed and leptin resistant.

We end up feeling less satisfied. We want to eat more. And our bodies even fight to hold on to the weight we gain.

Hyper-palatability

Palatability is more than just taste — it’s our whole experience of pleasure from a food. That includes taste as well as aroma, mouthfeel, texture, and the whole experience of eating. Palatability strongly influences how much we eat at meals.

That seems obvious: Of course we eat more of the foods we like. And of course some foods are more pleasurable to eat than others.

But some foods aren’t just palatable — they’re extremely palatable. They’re what you might call “too good”. Anything that you “just can’t stop eating” would fall into this category.

Reward value

Along with palatability, some foods give us a “hit” or a reward from some type of physiological effect. We’ll go out of our way to get foods with a high reward value — in fact, we may learn to like them even if they don’t taste very good.

For instance, few people like black coffee or beer the first time they try them. But coffee has caffeine (yeah!) and beer has alcohol (double yeah!). Our brains like caffeine and alcohol.

So we learn quickly that coffee and beer are good things, and we learn to like (or at least tolerate) their taste.

Over time we discover we like — maybe even can’t live without — them. We’ll wade through a crowded bar to buy a drink, we’ll stand in an absurdly long line for our afternoon coffee fix, and we’ll pay exorbitant amounts of money for relatively simple products.

We’ll also make room for high-reward foods even when we’re full. This is why at Thanksgiving, after moaning and groaning about how full you are, you miraculously make room for pie when it’s time for dessert.

Tasty + fun = no shutoff switch

Now, what happens when you put these two things — hyper-palatability (tasty) and high reward (fun) — together?

A dangerous combination.

We want these foods, we like these foods, and we’ll work hard to get them. When we do get them, we often don’t quit eating them.

These types of foods have a winning combination for keeping us interested and eating:

  • energy density. i.e. a lot of calories in a small package
  • high fat content
  • high refined starch and/or sugar content
  • saltiness
  • sweetness
  • pleasing and specific texture, such as creamy or crunchy
  • drugs, such as caffeine or alcohol
  • other flavor enhancers or additives to improve mouthfeel

This magical mix is rarely found in nature. It is, however, often found in highly processed foods like cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, pizza, ice cream, fried foods, and so forth.

The more of those elements we have, the better.

Make something salty, and sweet, and starchy, and fatty, then add in some extra flavors and scents, appealing colors and a pleasing mouthfeel for good measure, and you have something that’s been scientifically engineered for us to over-eat.

We naturally love and seek out these things.

Evolution has equipped us for it.

If you love so-called “junk food”, and feel like you can’t stop eating it, you’re not alone, bad, or weird.

Your brain is doing its job to keep you alive.

For example, high-fat foods are energy dense. Good news if you’re a hunter-gatherer and nutrients are scarce. A sweet taste can tell us a food is safe to eat. Bitter-tasting foods could be poisonous.

Yet our ancestors weren’t exactly dialing in for delivery. They had to bust their butts with daily activity such as stalking, gathering, and digging, even for minor rewards like a meal of turtle and tubers.

Today, of course, high-fat foods aren’t nutrient-rich animal organs or blubber that we had to work nine hours to get; they’re Frappucinos and bacon double cheeseburgers that we bought while seated in our car.

Evolution’s gifts now work against us.

This is your brain on processed food.

Our brains loooooove processed foods. But our bodies don’t.

These enchanting and semi-addictive foods aren’t usually very nutritious. They have more energy than we need, with fewer nutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, etc.) and fiber.

We don’t feel full or satisfied when we eat them.

After a while, our brain forgets about its natural “stop” signals in favor of getting more of that delicious “hit” from food reward. Our hedonic pleasure system starts bullying our homeostatic energy-balancing system.

Over time, if we eat a lot of these foods consistently, we might even injure and inflame the parts of our brain that regulate our food intake and energy output. Now our homeostatic regulation isn’t just getting pushed around, it’s also on fire.

We’re not sure exactly why this happens.

Getting too much energy from foods, and especially these foods, seems to injure our brain’s neurons, particularly in the hypothalamus. When we are injured, we normally release inflammatory cytokines (aka cell signals). This happens in the brain as well (since the brain is part of our body), causing hypothalamic inflammation.

There is also evidence that significant consumption of these energy-dense foods changes the populations of the bacteria in our gut. Which affects the gut-to-brain pathway and also causes hypothalamic inflammation.

Hypothalamic inflammation then leads to leptin resistance.

Disrupting the leptin feedback loop

You might have heard of insulin resistance, the condition where people’s cells stop “hearing” insulin signals, and slowly lose the ability to control their blood sugar levels.

The same thing can happen with leptin: Your brain can start to ignore or “tune out” the leptin, even if you’re eating enough, and have plenty of energy stored in your body fat.

In insulin resistance, the pancreas can simply pump out more insulin to keep blood sugar under control (at least for a while). Since body fat is our main leptin factory, to make more leptin, we need more body fat.

You see where this is going, right?

  1. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain thinks it doesn’t have enough leptin.
  2. The brain needs the leptin factory (i.e. body fat) to get bigger and produce more leptin.
  3. Operation Add Adiposity begins.
  4. You feel hungry. Regular portion sizes are no longer satisfying; it’s harder to feel satiated and you want to keep eating, and eat more often.
  5. You gain fat. Mission accomplished, or so your brain thinks.

Here’s what the leptin feedback loop looks like now, in this disrupted scenario:

precision-nutrition-brain-tells-you-to-eat-leptin-2

The leptin feedback look can be disrupted by inflammation and neuron injury, sometimes caused by eating too many processed foods. This, combined with other genetic and environmental factors, can lead to leptin resistance and increasing body fat.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems this inflammation and resulting leptin resistance might even cause our bodies to defend our increased weight. (This seems to be because the brain now views this higher level of leptin and body fat as its new normal.)

In this case, our body fights even harder than normal to stop us losing fat. (Scientists are still researching exactly how and why our bodies do this.)

D’oh.

Hyper-palatable, highly rewarding foods are often the most readily available.

Tasty-fun food-crack deliciousness bombs are everywhere.

Today, these are the top 6 sources of calories in the U.S.:

  1. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars)
  2. Yeast breads
  3. Chicken and chicken-mixed dishes (and we don’t mean chicken breasts — think chicken fingers, chicken stir-fry, and chicken nuggets)
  4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages

And:

  • Fast food now makes up 11 percent of the average American’s energy intake.
  • We now drink 350 percent more soft drinks than we did 50 years ago.
  • Soybean oil (largely used in highly-processed foods) accounts for 8 percent of all calories that Americans consume.

All of this, of course, makes perfect sense.

If you’re a food company, you want people to eat your food.

How do you do that? Engineer the food to be extra-rewarding and hard to stop eating. People eat more, and buy more, and then lie awake at night thinking about how they could totally go for an ice cream sundae with sprinkles right now…

If you’re a savvy marketer, you might also invent new opportunities for people to eat.

Like… at movies. In the car. “Snack time” before, during, and after school. In front of the TV. At sports events. Before, during, and after workouts. Late at night (which is usually where processed foods excel). And so on.

Social norms and our environment also affect where, when, how, and how much we eat.

Now that food and food cues are everywhere, all the time, it’s hard to avoid wanting to eat, and hard to know when to stop eating.

Change what you eat, change your brain.

You can’t control your unique genetic makeup, your history of dieting, nor your physiological response. But you can control your behaviors.

Here are two simple (but not necessarily easy) steps you can take to help your natural appetite regulation system get back online and do its job better:

Step 1:
Eat more whole, fresh, minimally processed foods.

This means stuff like:

  • Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and/or plant sources for your lean protein.
  • Fruits and vegetables, ideally colorful ones.
  • Slow-digesting, high-fiber starches such as whole grains, starchy tubers (e.g. potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, etc.), beans and legumes.
  • Nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, fatty fish and seafood for your quality fats.

Step 2:
Eat slowly and mindfully.

No matter what you eat, slowing down will help your brain and gastrointestinal tract coordinate their activities. It will help you feel more in control of choosing what and how much to eat.

Plus, since the signals are getting through properly, you’ll often feel satisfied with less food.

Step 3:
Eat fewer processed, hyper-palatable foods.

Step 3 can be tricky. We get it. After all, this whole article is about how appealing those foods can be.

Step 1 and 2 will make Step 3 easier. If you get more of the “good stuff”, and stay mindful as you eat it, there’s often less room (and desire) for the other stuff.

Over time, if you do these 3 steps consistently:

  • You’ll probably notice you crave highly processed foods less, and feel more in charge of your food decisions in general.
  • You’ll feel fuller for longer as that leptin loop returns to normal (at least to some degree, keeping in mind that each person’s body and situation is a bit different).
  • You may lose body fat.
  • You’ll probably find you feel, move and perform better, too.

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Food intake is complex.

Physiology plays a big role. But so do psychology, relationships and our larger society, our culture, our lifestyle, our individual knowledge or beliefs about food and eating.

This means you aren’t “doomed” by physiology. You can use other things to help your body do its job.

A meal of whole foods, properly cooked and seasoned, and enjoyed at the dinner table with your family or friends is going to be much more satisfying than eating in your car next to the drive-through window.

You don’t have to live in a world of bland and depressing “health food” just because you aren’t carpet-bombing your taste buds. Throw a little butter and salt on those veggies. Make them taste good — just not “too good”, too often.

Your brain will love you for it.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

Here are a few of our favorite strategies to help you find the right balance, and make smart choices.

1. Recognize that your body is a system. Think long-term.

What you do today can affect what happens tomorrow. Your breakfast can change your dinner.

If you restrict food and nutrients with a fad diet that “starts on Monday”, you might find your body aggressively taking back its energy by Friday.

2. Eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods.

Whole, minimally processed foods are not hyper-rewarding or hyper-palatable. It’s harder to over-eat them. They don’t cause hypothalamic inflammation and leptin resistance.

They have lots of good stuff (vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, phytonutrients, disease-fighting chemicals, etc.) and are usually lower in calories.

Here are some ideas for putting together a delicious plate.

Choose whole foods that you enjoy and will eat consistently.

3. Eat enough lean protein.

Protein is a satiety superstar.

We’ve seen in both research and our clients: When people eat more lean protein, they eat fewer calories overall. But they feel more satisfied. Sometimes even like they’re eating “too much”!

For most men, this generally means consuming 6-8 palm-sized portions of protein daily.

And for most women, this generally means consuming 4-6 palm-sized portions of protein daily.

4. Eat plenty of vegetables.

Vegetables — especially colorful ones — are obviously super healthy. They give you a lot of volume and nutrients for very little calories. And many of them are fun to eat (think crunchy carrots, baby tomatoes, etc.).

For most men, this generally means consuming 6-8 fist-sized portions of vegetables daily. For most women, this generally means consuming 4-6 fist-sized portions of vegetables daily.

5. Get quality carbs and healthy fats from whole, less processed foods.

For carbohydrates, look for whole grains, beans and legumes, starchy tubers (such as potatoes and sweet potatoes) and fruit. The combination of resistant starch, fiber and water content will help you feel fuller, for longer.

When it comes to carbohydrates, for most men we recommend 6-8 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates daily. And for most women we recommend 4-6 cupped handfuls of carbohydrates daily.

For fat-dense foods, look to high-quality oils and butters, nut butters, nuts/seeds, avocados, and even a little dark chocolate. Fat tends to be digested the most slowly of all the macronutrients, especially sources that are less energy-dense and higher in fiber (e.g. nuts, seeds, avocados).

For most men we recommend 6-8 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats per day. For most women we recommend 4-6 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats per day.

6. Consider how you eat.

Work on eating slowly. Pay attention to your own internal satiety cues. Eat without your smartphone, TV, or computer in your face.

Eat from smaller plates. Create an environment in your home and work space that makes it difficult to overeat or be tempted with highly-processed, highly-rewarding foods.

Remember Berardi‘s First Law: If a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.

This also leads to the corollary of Berardi’s First Law: If a healthy food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it.

7. Be flexible.

Recognize that it’s OK to have some of those highly-rewarding foods. Completely avoiding them, or demonizing them as “bad” or “poison” usually does the opposite of what you want: You feel like a guilty failure, and you often end up overeating or bingeing on those “banned” foods.

Instead, choose (in other words, decide in advance) to indulge in some occasional cookies, brownies or ice cream. Eat them slowly and mindfully, until you’re satisfied. Enjoy them.

And then move on, back to your regular routine like it ain’t no thing.

Keep in mind that how often you choose to indulge should depend on what you’re looking to achieve.

8. Be aware

Cultivate an awareness of how you feel before, during and after your meals.

Do you eat because you’re truly hungry, or because the clock says it’s time to eat, or because you just “feel snacky”?

Do you feel overstuffed at the end of a meal, only to find yourself staring into the fridge two hours later?

Where do most of your meals come from?

Consider keeping a food journal for a couple of weeks, making note of what you eat and how you feel. You can also jot down stuff like what you’re thinking, and what else is going on in your life (e.g. stress at work).

Simply becoming more aware of your body’s cues — and how these relate to other factors — will help you better regulate your food intake. Awareness helps you make decisions that are more in line with your body’s actual needs.

If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes — in a way that supports long-term progress — is both an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools you need to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with over 100,000 clients and patients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

The post Eating too much? You can blame your brain. [How brain signaling drives what you eat. And what to do about it.] appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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Fascinating video on how digestion and absorption influences your health and fitness. It’s one of the 18 new video lectures included in the PN Level 1 Certification program. Each lecture acts as a supplement to the accompanying textbook chapter, helping you better learn the material… and better retain what you’ve learned.

The post [Fascinating Video]: How Digestion Affects Your Health And Fitness. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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The after-work gin and tonic. The bottle of wine over dinner. A few beers on the weekend. Before long, the alcohol adds up.

Is that a problem? Can drinking stand in the way of your health and fitness? Do you need to quit drinking to change your body? Or could it actually be good for you?

In this article we explore the question in a personal way.

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“Should I take a break from booze?”

Have you ever asked yourself this question?

I’ve asked it, as have many of our Precision Nutrition Coaching clients.

At the same time, like many of our clients, I’ve never really felt like I needed to quit drinking. My consumption is normal by most accounts, as is theirs. It’s “moderate.”

But boozy beverages seem to show up a lot in my life — and I know I’m not alone in that.

Maybe we like having a beer to mark the end of a work day. Maybe on Friday we get fancy with a cocktail.

Something to celebrate? Pour a little champagne. Crappy day? That Chardonnay or Cabernet will soften the edges a little bit.

The drinks can start to add up.

If we consider ourselves healthy people, alcohol is easy to justify. We exercise. We try to eat nutritious food. If we’re getting coaching, we know we’re working on our stuff.

But still. Some of us wonder…

Are we OK?

Are we justifying something we shouldn’t?

Are we ignoring the elephant in the room who’s currently dancing with a lampshade on its head and laughing a little too loud while telling off-color jokes?

Are we pretending craft beer or red wine is a health food because it’s artisanal or full of antioxidant something-something?

If we want to be healthy, fit, and functional, how does alcohol factor in?

As I discovered, the answer isn’t straightforward. (It rarely is.)

For one thing:

You may have heard that drinking is actually good for you.

Moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, gallstones, and coronary heart disease.

Light to moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, helping reduce your risk of cardiac arrest and clot-caused stroke by 25 to 40 percent.

And there have been several studies indicating that drinkers — even heavy drinkers — actually outlive people who don’t drink.

We see headlines like this every time a new study comes out, which seems fairly often, judging by my newsfeed.

An important point that seems to get buried:

If you don’t already drink, health experts recommend you don’t start.

Wait, what? If drinking is so good for you, then why not add that antioxidant-rich red wine to MyPlate — a nice goblet right where the milk used to be?

Because no one knows if any amount of alcohol is actually good for all of us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you not to drink.

That’s not what this article is about.

But, despite all the headlines and pro-drinking studies:

Most of the research on alcohol’s potential health benefits are large, long-term epidemiological studies.

This type of research never proves anything.

Rather than showing that X causes Y, it simply says that X seems to be correlated with Y.

So even though many studies suggest that light to moderate drinkers have lower rates of the above-mentioned health problems than non-drinkers, that doesn’t mean drinking causes those benefits.

Sure, it could be that alcohol consumption raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Or it could be that moderate drinking reduces stress.

Or it could be that drinking doesn’t cause any health benefit.

Rather, it could be that people who drink a light to moderate amount also have something else going on in their lives, unrelated to alcohol consumption, that keeps them healthier, such as:

  • robust and resilient genes
  • a lower-stress personality
  • a particular lifestyle
  • good social connections and support

We just don’t know for sure.

Any physiological effects would vary from person to person.

The amount of alcohol that may help your heart health might harm your friend’s — for instance, if they have a history of high blood pressure.

And most of the research indicates that you’d have to be a light to moderate drinker with no heavy drinking episodes (even isolated ones) to see a heart benefit.

OK, given that…

What is “moderation”, anyway?

Definitions vary around the world, but according to the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “moderate drinking” means, on average:

  • For women: up to seven drinks per week, with no more than three drinks on any single day.
  • For men: up to 14 drinks per week, with no more than four drinks on any single day.

And here’s a guide to health-agency classified “drinks”:

Sure, you might know you’re not a binge drinker (that’s five or more drinks for men, or upwards of four for women, within two hours).

But when was the last time you poured wine in a measuring cup, or tallied your total number of drinks at the end of the week, or calculated your weekly average in a given month, or adjusted your tally to account for that sky-high 9.9% ABV Strong Ale you love?

Studies show that people routinely, sometimes drastically, underestimate their alcohol consumption.

It’s easy to edge into the “heavy” category without realizing it.

For example, if you’re a woman:

That’s a big problem, since heavy drinking comes with a much higher risk of major health problems.

Risks associated with moderate and heavy alcohol consumption

Moderate Heavy
Heart Arrhythmias
High blood pressure
Kidney disease
Heart disease
Stroke
Brain Disinhibition
Altered judgement
Poor coordination
Sleep disruption
Alcoholism*
Chemical dependence
Depression
Alcoholism
Neurological damage
Epilepsy
Dementia
Damage to developing brains
Immunity Infection / illness / lowered immune response
Cancer (mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast)
Damaged intestinal barrier
Increased inflammation / flare-ups of autoimmune disorders
Hormones Breast cancer Hormone disruption
Impaired sexual function
Impaired reproductive function
Thyroid disease
Liver Worsening of existing conditions such as hepatitis Fatty liver
Alcoholic hepatitis
Fibrosis / cirrhosis
Hepatocellular
Liver cancer
Metabolism Weight gain or stalled weight loss**
Interference with some medications
Loss of bone density
Bone fractures
Osteoporosis
Anemia
Pancreatitis
Changes to fat metabolism
Muscle damage

*Particularly if there’s alcoholism in your family
**If drinking causes you to eat more food or opt for energy-dense meals

In young males especially, even moderate drinking increases the risk of accidental injury or death, due to the “Hey y’all, hold my beer and watch this!” effect, or simply the dangerous equation of youthful exuberance combined with less impulse control, combined with more peer pressure, combined with things like motor vehicles and machinery.

All drinking comes with potential health effects.

After all, alcohol is technically a kind of poison that our bodies must convert to less-harmful substances for us to enjoy a good buzz relatively safely.

Through a series of chemical pathways using the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), we convert ethanol to acetaldehyde, then to acetate. The body breaks acetate down into carbon dioxide and water.

A second system for processing alcohol, the microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS), involves cytochrome P450 (CYP), an enzyme group that chemically affects potentially toxic molecules (such as medications) so they can be safely excreted.

In light to moderate drinkers, only about 10 percent of ethanol processing is done by the MEOS. But in heavy drinkers, this system kicks in more strongly. That means the MEOS may be less available to process other toxins. Oxidative cell damage, and harm from high alcohol intake, then goes up.

The biochemistry doesn’t matter as much as the core concepts:

1. We have to change alcohol to tolerate it.

2. Our ability to process alcohol depends on many factors, such as:

  • our natural individual genetic tolerance
  • our ethnicity and genetic background (for instance, many people of East Asian ancestry have a genetically-linked aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme deficiency, which affects their ability to properly metabolize alcohol)
  • our age
  • our body size
  • our biological sex
  • our individual combinations of conversion enzymes
  • etc.

3. Dose matters. But all alcohol requires some processing by the body.

So what’s the “sweet spot”?

What amount of alcohol balances enjoyment (and your jokes becoming funnier) with your body’s ability to respond and recover from processing something slightly poisonous?

The moderate-vs-heavy guidelines are the experts’ best guess at the amount of alcohol that can be consumed with statistically minimal risk, while still accounting for what a lot of people are probably going to do anyway: drink.

It doesn’t mean that moderate drinking is risk-free.

But drinking is fun. (There, I said it.)

In North America, we tend to separate physical well-being from our emotional state. In reality, quality of life, enjoyment, and social connections are important parts of health.

So let me say it:

I enjoy drinking.

So do a lot of other people.

In the U.S., for example, 65 percent of people say they consume alcohol. Of those drinkers, at least three quarters enjoy alcohol one or more times per week.

The wine flows at lunchtime in continental Europe (for Scandinavians, it’s the light beer lättöl). Hitting a pub or two after work is standard procedure in the UK and Japan. Northern Europeans swear by their brennivin, glögg, or akvavit (not to mention vodka). South America and South Africa alike are renowned for their red wines.

Thus, for much of the world’s population, alcohol — whether beer, wine or spirits — is something of a life staple.

And if you’re doing it right — meaning tasteful New Year’s Eve champagne toasts are more common in your life than shot-fueled bar dances to “Hotline Bling” — there are some undeniable benefits to be gained:

  • Pleasure: Assuming you’ve graduated from wine coolers and cheap tequila shots, alcoholic beverages usually taste pretty darn delicious.
  • Leisure: A bit of alcohol in your bloodstream does help you feel relaxed. And like a good meal, a good glass of wine should offer the opportunity to slow down for a minute.
  • Creativity: There’s evidence that when you’re tipsy, you may be more successful at problem-solving thanks to increased out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Social connection: Drinking may contribute to social bonding through what researchers call “golden moments” — when you all smile and laugh together over the same joke. This sense of community, belonging, and joy can contribute to your health and longevity.

If you’re going to drink, drink because you genuinely enjoy it.

Drink if it truly adds value and pleasure to your life.

Not because:

  • you’re stressed
  • it’s a habit
  • other people around you don’t want to drink alone; or
  • it’s “good for you”.

With confusing alcohol consumption categories and contradictory news headlines, many people give up trying to decide whether drinking is healthy or not.

A new study shows alcohol may be harmful? Whatever.

Or:

Drinkers live longer? I’ll hop on that horse and ride it straight to the bar!

So forget about the potential health benefits of alcohol.

There are plenty of (probably better) ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease — like eating well, exercising, and not smoking.

Wanting the enjoyment of a perfect Old Fashioned or a rare sake is a legitimate — probably the best — reason to drink.

As with what you eat, what you drink should be purposeful and mindful. And delicious.

Drinking or not drinking isn’t about “healthy vs. not”. It’s about tradeoffs.

Alcohol is just one factor among many that affect physical performance, health, and fitness.

Whether to keep drinking or cut back depends on how much you drink, what your goals are, and how you want to prioritize those things.

Only you know what you are, or aren’t, willing to trade.

It may be a simple “yes” or “no”.

  • Saying “yes” to Friday happy hour might mean saying “no” to your Saturday morning workout.
  • Saying “yes” to marathon training might mean saying “no” to boozy Sunday brunches.
  • Saying “yes” to better sleep (and focus, and mood) might mean saying “no” to your daily wine with dinner.
  • Saying “yes” to moderate alcohol consumption might mean finding a way to say “no” to stress triggers (or human triggers) that make you want to drink more.

Or it may be where you’re willing to move along the continuum.

  • Maybe you’re willing to practice drinking more slowly and mindfully, but you’re not willing to decrease your total alcohol intake.
  • Maybe you’re trying to lose weight, so you’d consider drinking a little less. Like 2 beers instead of 3, but not 0.
  • Or, maybe you’re willing to stay sober during most social situations, but you’re not willing to endure your partner’s office party without a G&T on hand.

Maybe there is a “best” answer for how much alcohol is okay for everyone. But we don’t know what it is yet.

At least not for certain.

That’s OK.

You can write your own “Owner’s Manual” for YOU as a unique individual.

Guidelines for drinking don’t tell us who YOU are or what effects alcohol has on YOU.

So let’s forget about “expert” advice for just a moment.

Instead, let’s try letting your body lead.

Read its cues. Observe yourself carefully, gather data, and see how alcohol is — or isn’t — working for you.

Here’s how.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

1. Observe your drinking habits.

Keep track of all the alcohol you drink for a week or two (here’s a worksheet to help you).

You don’t need to share it with anyone or feel like you need to change anything. Just collect the info.

Next, review the data. Ask:

  • Am I drinking more than I thought? Maybe you hadn’t been taking the couple of casual beers with Sunday NFL into account.
  • Is my drinking urgent, mindless, or rushed? Slamming drinks back without stopping to savor them can be a sign that drinking is habitual, not purposeful.
  • Is alcohol helping me enjoy life, or is it stressing me out? If you’re not sleeping well or feeling worried about the drinking, the cost can outweigh the benefit.
  • Does alcohol bring any unwanted friends to the party? Binge eating, drug use, texting your ex?

If any of the answers to these questions raise red flags for you, consider cutting back and seeing how you feel.

2. Notice how alcohol affects your body.

Use Precision Nutrition’s “how’s that working for you?” litmus test. Ask:

  • Do I generally feel good? Simple, but telling.
  • Am I recovering? How’s my physical performance after drinking? If I were to hit the gym on Saturday morning after a Friday night social, how would I feel and perform?
  • What happens afterwards? Do I get a hangover, upset stomach, poor sleep, puffiness/bloating and/or other discomfort?
  • How does the extra energy intake work for my goals? Is alcohol adding some calories that I don’t want? Am I trying to lose weight, for instance?
  • What do my other physiological indicators say? What did my latest medical tests suggest? How’s my blood work? My blood pressure? Any other physiological indicators that I’m watching?

If you’re unsure about whether your alcohol use is helping or hurting you, talk to your doctor and get a read on your overall health.

3. Notice how alcohol affects your thoughts, emotions, assumptions, and general perspective on life.

Again: How’s that working for you?

  • Do you feel in control of your drinking? Are you choosing, deliberately and purposefully… or “finding yourself” drinking?
  • What kind of person are you when you are drinking? Are you a bon vivant, just slightly wittier and more relaxed, savoring a craft beer with friends? Or are you thinking, Let’s make that crap circus of a workday go away, as you pound back the liquid emotional anesthetic through gritted teeth?
  • If you had to stop drinking for a week, what would that be like? No big deal? Or did you feel mild panic when you read that question?

4. Play “Let’s Make a Deal”.

To pinpoint which goals and activities in your life are the most important to you, ask yourself:

  • What am I currently saying “yes” to?
  • What am I currently saying “no” to?
  • What am I willing to say “yes” to?
  • What am I willing to say “no” to?
  • What am I prepared to say “yes” and “no” to? Why?

There are no right or wrong answers.

Just choices and compromises.

You’re a grown-up who can think long-term and weigh options rationally. Whether you drink or not is your call.

5. Disrupt the autopilot.

One of the keys to behavior change is moving from unconscious, automatic reactions to conscious, deliberate decisions.

To experiment with decreasing your alcohol intake, try these strategies:

  • Delay your next drink. Just for 10 minutes, to see if you still want it.
  • Look for ways to circumvent your patterns. If you usually hit the bar after work, try booking an alcohol-free activity (like a movie date or a yoga class) with a friend instead. If you stock up on beer at the grocery store, skip that aisle altogether and pick up some quality teas or sparkling water instead.
  • Savor your drink. Tune into the sensations in front of you. Here’s an idea: try tasting wine like a sommelier. Look at it, swirl it, sniff it, taste it.
  • Swap quantity for quality. Drink less, but when you do drink, treat yourself to the good stuff.

6. Call on the experts.

Change almost always works better with support. It’s hard to change alone.

  • Talk to your doctor about your drinking patterns and your health.
  • Consider genetic testing. Many commercial genetic testing services can tell you about your alcohol tolerance, or your risk of other chronic diseases (such as breast cancer) that are linked to alcohol intake.

7. If you choose to drink, enjoy it.

Savor it. Enjoy it mindfully, ideally among good company.

If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes (including how to manage energy balance) — in a way that supports long-term progress — is both an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools you need to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with nearly 100,000 clients and patients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

The post Would I be healthier if I quit drinking? My quest to understand the real tradeoffs of alcohol consumption. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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There’s a lot of discussion in the fitness industry about whether crash dieting can cause metabolic damage. In this article, we’ll take on this interesting topic and separate fact from fiction. We’ll also teach you exactly why crash diets might be linked to struggling to maintain your weight in the future.

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Despite working out consistently and intensely, plus eating carefully, you’re not losing weight (or not losing it as fast as you’d like or expect).

Or you were losing weight consistently… until recently. Now you’re stuck — even though you’re working as hard as ever.

Or when you were younger, you were super fit. Maybe you did fitness competitions. Maybe you did some crash diets. But now, even when you put in the same effort, you just can’t seem to get as lean.

“Is my metabolism damaged?”

Precision Nutrition Coaching clients ask us this question all the time.

(If you’re a health, fitness or wellness professional, you’ve probably heard it from your clients or patients too.)

Can months or years of dieting do some kind of long-term harm to the way the human body processes food?

Not exactly.

But gaining and losing fat can change the way your brain regulates your body weight.

To understand this answer let’s explore how human metabolism actually works. Then we’ll talk about whether the metabolism can actually be damaged.

Note: This post delves into the science of energy balance, thermodynamics, and metabolic regulation. If you love learning this stuff, feel free to dig in.

If, on the other hand, you’re simply looking for solid, research-backed advice on how to lose fat and break weight-loss plateaus, feel free to skip to the summary at the end

Energy balance: The laws of physics still apply.

You need a certain amount of energy (in the form of calories) to stay alive, as well as to move around. You can get this energy from food, or you can retrieve it from stored energy (e.g. your fat tissue).

In theory:

  • If you eat less energy than you expend, you should lose weight.
  • If you do the opposite (i.e. eat more energy than you expend), you should gain weight.

In other words:
metabolism_1
*We use the term “body stores” deliberately as it represents the tissues available for breakdown (fat, muscle, organ, bone, etc) and excludes water (which can change body weight independently of energy balance).

This relationship between ‘energy in’ and ‘energy out’ is called the Energy Balance Equation, and it’s the most commonly accepted model for calculating a person’s energy balance and how much weight they’ll lose or gain over time.

While the Energy Balance Equation determines body weight, it doesn’t tell us much about body composition, which is influenced by things like sex hormone levels, macronutrient intake (especially protein), exercise style / frequency / intensity, age, medication use, genetic predisposition, and more.

Understandably, people get really frustrated and confused with the Energy Balance Equation when the numbers don’t seem to add up, or their results don’t match their expectations. (This is a good lesson, by the way, about the importance of adjusting your expectations to match observable reality.)

And it’s a fair frustration. Most of the time, the numbers don’t add up.

Importantly:

This mismatch between expectations versus reality is not because the Energy Balance Equation is wrong, or a myth. Nobody’s body defies the laws of physics, even though it seems like that sometimes.

It’s because the equation is more complicated than it sounds.

Many factors affect the Energy Balance Equation; they aren’t mutually exclusive. What you do to ‘energy in’ affects what happens to ‘energy out’. And vice versa.

“Eat less, move more” is a good start. (Most of us could probably benefit from eating a little less and getting a little more daily activity.)

But that advice alone isn’t enough. It doesn’t take all of the complex, intersecting factors into account.

Let’s take a look at some of these factors, starting with the ‘energy in’ part of the equation.

‘Energy in’ is trickier than you think.

Reason 1: The number of calories in a meal likely doesn’t match the number of calories on the labels or menu.

This might sound hard to believe, but it’s true… the way companies (and even the government) come up with calorie and nutrient estimates is incredibly complex, rather imprecise, and centuries-old. As a result, food labels can be off by as much as 20-25 percent.

And even if those food labels were correct:

Reason 2: The amount of energy a food contains in the form of calories is not necessarily the amount of energy we absorb, store, and/or use.

Remember that the food we eat has to be digested and processed by our unique bodies. The innumerable steps involved in digestion, processing, absorption, storage, and use — as well as our own individual physiological makeup — can all change the energy balance game.

So, for instance:

  • We absorb less energy from minimally processed carbohydrates, and fats, because they’re harder to digest.
  • We absorb more energy from highly processed carbohydrates and fats, because they’re easier to digest. (Think of it this way: The more “processed” a food is, the more digestion work is already done for you.)

For example, research has shown that we absorb more fat from peanut butter than from whole peanuts. The researchers found that almost 38 percent of the fat in peanuts was excreted in the stool, rather than absorbed by the body. Whereas seemingly all of the fat in the peanut butter was absorbed.

In addition:

When eating raw starchy foods (like sweet potatoes), we absorb very few of the calories. After cooking, however, the starches are much more available to us, tripling the number of calories absorbed.

Interestingly, allowing starchy foods to then cool before eating them decreases the amount of calories we can extract from them again. (This is mostly due to the formation of resistant starches).

Finally:

  • We may absorb more or less energy depending on the types of bacteria in our gut.

Some people have larger populations of a Bacteroidetes (a species of bacteria), which are better at extracting calories from tough plant cell walls than other bacteria species.

Here’s an interesting example of this whole process at work. Recently, USDA researchers asked test subjects to consume 45 grams (about 1 ½ servings) of walnuts daily for three weeks.

What they found was that, on average, people only absorbed 146 of the 185 calories in the nuts. That’s 79 percent of the calorie content on the label.

In similar research, people also absorbed only 80 percent of the calories in almonds, and 95 percent of the calories in pistachios.

Beyond the average, there were individual differences: Some people absorbed more of the energy in the nuts, while some absorbed less (likely due to the differing populations of bacteria in their large intestines).

In the end, by eating a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods, the number of calories you absorb can be significantly less than what you expect. Plus they require more calories to digest.

Conversely, you will absorb more calories by eating lots of highly processed foods, plus burn fewer calories in the digestive process. (In addition, highly processed foods are less filling, more energy dense, and more likely to cause overeating.)

Since the number of calories someone thinks they’re consuming could be off by 25 percent (or more), their carefully curated daily intake of 1,600 calories could really be 1,200… or 2,000.

This means:
metabolism_2
As you can see, there’s a big margin of error for energy input, even if you’re a conscientious calorie counter. This doesn’t invalidate the Energy Balance Equation. It just means that if you want an accurate calculation, you probably have to live in a fancy metabolic lab.

For most people, it’s not worth the effort (that’s why Precision Nutrition moved to a hand-based measuring model for portions).

‘Energy out’ varies a lot from person to person.

‘Energy out’ — again, energy burned through daily metabolism and moving you around —  is a dynamic, always-changing variable.

There are four key parts to this complex system:

1. Resting metabolic rate (RMR)

RMR is the number of calories you burn each day at rest, just to breathe, think, and live. This represents roughly 60 percent of your ‘energy out’ and depends on weight, body composition, sex, age, genetic predisposition, and possibly (again) the bacterial population of your gut.

A bigger body, in general, has a higher RMR.

For instance:

  • A 150-pound man might have an RMR of 1583 calories a day.
  • A 200-pound man might have an RMR of 1905 calories.
  • A 250-pound man might have an RMR of 2164 calories.

Crucially, RMR varies up to 15 percent from person to person. If you’re that 200-pound guy with an RMR of 1905 calories, another guy just like you on the next treadmill might burn 286 more (or fewer) calories each day with no more (or less) effort.

2. Thermic effect of eating (TEE)

This may surprise you, but it takes energy to digest food. Digestion is an active metabolic process. (Ever had the “meat sweats” or felt hot after a big meal, especially one with lots of protein? That’s TEE.)

TEE is the number of calories you burn by eating, digesting, and processing your food. This represents roughly 5-10 percent of your ‘energy out’.

In general, you’ll burn more calories in your effort to digest and absorb protein (20-30 percent of its calories) and carbs (5-6 percent) than you do fats (3 percent).

And as noted before, you’ll burn more calories digesting minimally processed whole foods compared to highly processed foods.

3. Physical activity (PA)

PA is the calories you burn from purposeful exercise, such as walking, running, going to the gym, gardening, riding a bike, etc.

Obviously, how much energy you expend through PA will change depending on how much you intentionally move around.

4. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

NEAT is the calories you burn through fidgeting, staying upright, and all other physical activities except purposeful exercise. This, too, varies from person to person and day to day.

This means:
metabolism_3
Each of these is highly variable. Which means the ‘energy out’ side of the equation may be just as hard to pin down as the “energy in” side.

So, while the Energy Balance Equation sounds simple in principle, all these variables make it hard to know or control exactly how much energy you’re taking in, absorbing, burning, and storing.

Here’s the entire equation:
metabolism_4 corrected

When you try to outsmart your body and it outsmarts you back.

Even if all the variables in the final equation above were static, the Energy Balance Equation would be complicated enough. But things get crazy when you consider that altering any one of the variables causes adjustments in other, seemingly unrelated variables.

This is a good thing, of course. Our human metabolisms evolved to keep us alive and functioning when food was scarce. One consequence:

When ‘energy in’ goes down, ‘energy out’ goes down to match it. (You burn fewer calories in response to eating less).

Not in everybody. And not perfectly. But that’s how the system is supposed to work. That’s how our bodies avoid unwanted weight loss and starvation. It’s how humans have survived for 2 million years. The body fights to maintain homeostasis.

Likewise, when ‘energy in’ goes up, ‘energy out’ tends to go up too. (You burn more calories in response to eating more).

To illustrate this point, here’s how your body tries to keep your weight steady when you take in less energy and start to lose weight*.

  • Thermic effect of eating goes down because you’re eating less.
  • Resting metabolic rate goes down because you weigh less.
  • Calories burned through Physical activity go down since you weigh less.
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis goes down as you eat less.
  • Calories not absorbed goes down and you absorb more of what you eat.

*This response is particularly modest at first. But the adaptation really ramps up as you lose more weight. (Or if you’re starting out lean and trying to get super-lean).

Check out what this looks like:
metabolism_graph_1 corrected In addition to these tangible effects on the equation, reducing actual calories eaten also causes hunger signals to increase, causing us to crave (and maybe eat) more.

The net effect leads to a much lower rate of weight loss than you might expect. In some cases, it could even lead to weight re-gain.

To add insult to injury, a rise in cortisol from the stress of dieting can cause our bodies to hold onto more water, making us feel “softer” and “less lean” than we actually are.

Interestingly, this is just one example of the amazing and robust response to trying to manipulate one variable (in this case, actual calories eaten). There are similar responses when trying to manipulate each of the other variables in the equation.

For example, research suggests that increasing physical activity above a certain threshold (by exercising more) can trigger:

  • Increased appetite and more actual calories eaten
  • Decreased calories not absorbed as we absorb more of what we eat
  • Decreased RMR
  • Decreased NEAT

In this case, here’s what the equation would look like:
metabolism_graph_2 correctedIn the end, these are just two of the many examples we could share. The point is that metabolism is much more complicated (and interdependent) than most people realize.

Therefore, trying “what used to work” for you, or relying on calorie counting, often won’t get you the results you want. As your energy balance evolves, so must your strategies for losing fat or maintaining your weight.

Understanding energy balance means setting better expectations about body change.

It’s important to note that if you have lots of body fat to lose, many of these adaptations (i.e. lowered RMR, PA, NEAT, etc) don’t happen right away. But, as you become leaner, this “adaptive thermogenesis” kicks in.

It’s also important to know that how your metabolism reacts to changes in energy balance will be unique to you.

How much you can lose or gain will depend on your age, your genetic makeup, your biological sex, if you’ve had relatively more or less body fat and for how long, what medications you’re taking, the makeup of your microbiome… and probably a whole lot of factors we don’t even know about yet.

But let’s try to simulate how this could work.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have studied the data from people who have lost weight, and created a mathematical model that represents how weight and fat loss actually happens in the real world.

We can play with it, using the Precision Nutrition Weight Loss Calculator.

Let’s start with a 40-year-old male, with a starting weight of 235 lbs and a height of 5’10”. We’ll call him Frank.

Frank works a desk job, and is only lightly active outside of work. This calculates that he needs 2,976 calories of energy per day to maintain his current weight.

By knocking off 500 calories per day, his intake drops to 2,476 calories daily. And he doesn’t plan on changing his physical activity.

Now, you’ve probably heard somewhere that a pound is equivalent to 3,500 calories, which means that if we take away those 500 calories from Frank every day, he should lose 1 pound per week (500 x 7 days = 3500 calories).

He should end up at 183 lbs after one year of consistently eating 500 fewer calories every day. (According to this math, then, he would weigh 0 lbs within 5 years, which should raise some red flags.)

But we know it doesn’t exactly work this way in real life.

At the end of a year, Frank gets on the scale. He’s 205 lbs.

What the hell?

That’s 22 pounds more than I should be!

Frank rages to his wife Maria, who smiles knowingly. She’s 40 too, and has been trying to lose weight since having two kids in her mid-30s.

Tell me about it, she says. I’ve lost and gained the same 10 pounds over and over, even though I’ve been exercising and eating pretty healthy.

Then they both think:

Maybe I should try that juice cleanse after all. My body is obviously broken.

Nope, nobody is broken. Don’t hit that juice cleanse just yet.

Instead, Frank and Maria could both benefit from a clear understanding of how weight loss actually works. Then they can set appropriate behavior goals, and have realistic expectations for their progress.

(Postscript: Frank and Maria decide against the juice fast and enroll in Precision Nutrition Coaching. At the end of a year, Maria’s “only” lost a total of 7 lbs, but has gained 5 lbs of muscle [which means she’s lost 12 lbs of fat]. Her firm arms and glowing skin are the envy of the other moms. Frank is down to a fit 185 lbs and trying to figure out how to convince Maria that he should buy a mountain bike.)

So, does dieting damage the metabolism?

Despite what you may have heard:

No, losing weight doesn’t “damage” your metabolism.

But because of the adaptations your body undergoes in response to fat loss (to prevent that fat loss, in fact), ‘energy out’ for those who have lost significant weight will always be lower than for people who were always lean.

Rather:

Losing weight, and keeping it off, is accompanied by adaptive metabolic, neuroendocrine, autonomic, and other changes.

These changes mean that we expend less energy — around 5-10 percent less (or up to 15 percent less at extreme levels) than what would be predicted based on just weighing less.

Unfortunately, because of this adaptive response, someone who has dieted down will often require 5-15 percent fewer calories per day to maintain the weight and physical activity level than someone who has always been that weight.

(Or even less, potentially, because as we learned in the very beginning, the RMR of people of the exact same age/weight/etc. can still vary by up to another 15 percent.)

This means someone who was never overweight might need 2,500 calories to maintain their weight, while someone who had to diet down to that weight may need only 2,125-2,375 calories to hold steady.

We don’t know how long this lowered energy expenditure lasts. Studies have shown that it can hang around for up to 7 years after weight loss (or more; 7 years is as far as it’s been studied). This likely means it’s permanent, or at least persistent.

This is extra relevant for people who have repeatedly dieted, or for fitness competitors who may repeatedly fluctuate between being extremely lean and being overweight in the off-season.

I don’t have data to back this up (to my knowledge no one has studied it), but adaptive thermogenesis seems to react more strongly or more rapidly with each successive yo-yo of extreme body fat fluctuations.

All of this explains why some people can feel like they’ve “damaged” their metabolism through repeated dieting. (And why some experts suggest “metabolic damage” is a real thing.)

But nothing really has been “damaged”.

Instead, their bodies have just become predictably more sensitive to various hormones and neurotransmitters. Their metabolic rates are understandably lower than predicted by various laboratory equations.

So, where does this leave us?

Even folks whose bodies resist fat loss or muscle gain can accomplish these goals.

All physiological changes — including weight loss or gain, fat loss or gain, and muscle loss or gain — require different efforts and amounts of time for different people.

But even if your body does resist weight loss, you can still lose fat, gain muscle, and dramatically change your body.

Our Precision Nutrition Coaching men’s and women’s Finalist Halls of Fame are clear evidence of that.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition.

The physiology of weight loss is complicated, but the best strategies for losing fat and keeping it off don’t have to be.

1. Eat plenty of protein.

Protein is essential when trying to losing weight / fat for a few reasons.

  • Protein helps you keep that all-important lean body mass (which includes connective tissues, organs, and bone as well as muscle).
  • Protein significantly increases satiety, which means you feel fuller despite eating less. (And eating more protein often causes people to eat less overall.)
  • Just by eating more protein you burn more calories, because of the increased thermic effect of eating.

For example, if you’re eating 2,500 calories daily, 15 percent from protein, 50 percent from carbs, and 35 percent from fats (roughly average for US adults), you’re burning approximately 185 calories per day through digestion.

Maintain your total calorie intake but increase protein to 30 percent, drop carbs to 40 percent, and whittle fat to 30 percent, and your TEE goes up to roughly 265 calories per day.

  • For most active men: 6-8 palm-sized servings of protein per day.
  • For most active women: 4-6 palm-sized servings per day.

For a complete guide to using your hand to measure portions, check out our Calorie Control Guide infographic.

2. Eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, quality carbs, and healthy fats.

Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, water, and fiber to help you fill up during meals, stay full between meals, keep you healthy, and recover from your workouts.

  • We recommend 6-8 fist-sized servings per day for most active men.
  • And 4-6 fist-sized servings per day for most active women.

The carbs will fuel training, boost leptin (a super important hormone), keep up sex hormones, and prevent feelings of deprivation.

And the fats also keep up sex hormones, boost the immune system, suppress excess inflammation, and make food taste really good.

  • For most active men, this would be 6-8 handfuls of quality carbs, and 6-8 thumbs of healthy fats per day.
  • For most active women, 4-6 handfuls of quality carbs and 4-6 thumbs of healthy fats per day.

For a complete guide to using your hand to measure portions, check out our Calorie Control Guide infographic.

3. Adjust your intake as you plateau, or to prevent plateaus.

As your weight loss progresses, you will need to lower your calorie intake further to continue to progress, as your smaller body will burn fewer calories, and your body is adapting to your diet.

Be ready, willing, and able to adjust portion amounts by removing 1-2 handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fats from your daily intake. Then reassess and continue to adjust as needed.

However, one study found that weight loss plateaus have less to do with metabolic adaptations and more to do with “an intermittent lack of diet adherence”. In other words, not actually sticking to a nutrition plan consistently.

Research shows that we usually think we’re eating less and exercising more than we truly are. So do an objective review of your actual energy in and out before assuming your body is blocking your efforts.

4. Understand that this is complex.

So many things influence what, why, and when we choose to eat.

Too often, eating and body size / fatness are blamed on lack of knowledge, lack of willpower/discipline, or laziness. In reality, food intake and body composition are governed by a mix of physiological, biological, psychological, social, economical, and lifestyle influences, along with individual knowledge or beliefs.

One of the simplest ways to make your decision processes easier is to create an environment that encourages good food choices and discourages poor ones. This can mean making changes to your daily routine, who you spend time with, where you spend time, and what food is readily available to you.

But remember that weight loss can and should be relatively slow, so aim to lose about 0.5-1 percent of your body weight per week.

This helps to maintain muscle mass and minimize the adaptive metabolic responses to a lower calorie intake and resulting weight loss. Faster weight loss tends to result in more muscle loss without extra fat loss, as well as a larger adaptive response.

5. Cycle calories and carbs.*

For folks who are trying to get quite lean, at some point you can’t just rely on linear dieting to get you there. By strategically cycling calories and carbs, you can help to limit how much the metabolism-regulating hormone leptin drops (or temporarily boost it back up) – attenuating the adaptive and hunger response.

*Note: This is a higher-level strategy for fitness competitors and elite athletes who need to get very lean (i.e. ~6-9 percent body fat for men, and ~16-19 percent for women). It’s not something for the average person.

6. Refeed periodically.**

When getting to extreme levels of leanness, even strategic calorie and carb cycling might not be enough. So take out the big guns, and employ some periodic re-feeds to temporarily boost leptin and insulin and keep fat loss going.

**Note: This is a higher-level strategy for fitness competitors and elite athletes who need to get very lean (i.e. <6 percent body fat for men, and <16 percent for women).

7. Do a mixture of resistance, cardiovascular, and recovery activity.

Resistance training helps you maintain vital muscle mass, burn calories, and improve glucose tolerance. Cardiovascular exercise improves the health of your cardiovascular system, helps you expend energy, and can improve recovery.

But don’t overdo either one.

Recovery work (e.g. foam rolling, walking, yoga) helps you maintain consistency and intensity with resistance and cardio training, making them more effective. And it helps to decrease stress (lowering cortisol), which also helps you lose body fat and keep it off.

Aim for 3-5 hours per week of purposeful activity.

8. Find ways to increase NEAT.

Even small increases in activity can account for hundreds of daily calories, and therefore make a big difference in fat loss efforts.

Some ideas: Get a stand-up desk or a treadmill desk; fidget; pace while on the phone; take the stairs; park your car farther away from where you’re going.

9. Develop a solid nightly sleep routine and manage your stress.

Sleep is just as important to your success as nutrition and activity levels. Don’t pretend that you can get by with less. It simply isn’t true.

Often, when people lower their stress, they lose a lot of body water. Then they also notice that they may have lost fat too. (Plus, they may discover that chronic inflammation goes down — another win.)

This includes mental and emotional stress. Research on cognitive dietary restraint (i.e. worrying and stressing out about food) shows that constantly and negatively fixating on what you eat (or don’t) can have the same unhealthy effect as actually dieting stringently.

Yet we need some stress to actually help with progress and growth, so find your stress sweet spot.

10. Have some self-compassion.

There are going to be meals or days where you don’t eat as you “should”. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. Recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself, and then get back on track.

Research actually shows that self-compassion and flexible eating is associated with lower BMI and a healthier body weight, lower self-reported calorie intake, less anxiety and stress, and a better relationship with food.

Passionate about nutrition and health?

If so, and you’d like to learn more about it, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. Our next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with nearly 100,000 clients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

The post Can eating too little actually damage your metabolism? Exploring the truths and fallacies of ‘metabolic damage’. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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You’re tracking your eating and exercise meticulously but not seeing results. Has your metabolism slowed to a crawl? Are your hormones off? Is it really possible to GAIN weight from eating too LITTLE? Here’s what’s really going on — and how to solve it.

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“How can I be eating so little, and still gaining weight?”

Have you ever felt this way? (Or had a client who has?)

In my years as a coach, it’s a question that’s come up time and time again — from both clients and fellow coaches.

They’re confused. Frustrated. Maybe even angry. (Or certainly “hangry.”)

Despite doing everything they can, including eating less — maybe a lot less — they’re still not losing weight. In fact, they might even be gaining.

Do a quick Internet search and you’re bound to find lots of explanations.

Some folks say that the laws of energy balance apply, and that people aren’t counting calories properly. Others call it “starvation mode”, or some weird metabolic or hormonal problem.

So what’s the deal? Is there something wrong with them? Are their bodies broken? Is it all in their heads?

Or can you actually gain weight from eating too little?

Let’s find out.

Truth: Thermodynamics don’t lie.

You’ve probably heard the phrase — the laws of thermodynamics — before. Or maybe you’ve heard it as energy balance. Or “calories in, calories out.”

Let’s break down what it actually means.

Thermodynamics is a way to express how energy is used and changed. Put simply, we take in energy in the form of food, and we expend energy through activities like:

  • basic metabolic functions (breathing, circulating blood, etc.)
  • movement (daily-life activity, purposeful exercise, etc.)
  • producing heat (also called thermogenesis)
  • digestion and excretion

And, the truth is…

Energy balance (calories in, calories out) does determine bodyweight.

  • If we absorb more energy than we expend, we gain weight.
  • If we absorb less energy than we expend, we lose weight.

This has been tested over and over again by researchers, in many settings.

It’s as close as we can get to scientific fact.

Sure, there are many factors that influence either side of this seemingly simple equation, which can make things feel a little confusing:

However, humans do not defy the laws of thermodynamics.

But what about unexplained weight changes? That time you ate a big dinner and woke up lighter? When you feel like you’re “doing everything right” but you’re not losing weight?

Nope, even if we think we’re defying energy in vs. energy out, we’re not.

And what about that low carb doctor who implies that insulin resistance (or some other hormone) mucks up the equation?

While hormones may influence the proportions of lean mass and fat mass you gain or lose, they still don’t invalidate the energy balance equation.

Yet, as the title of the article suggests, it is easy to understand why folks — even internet-famous gurus and doctors — get confused about this.

One reason why…

Measuring metabolism is tricky.

The fact is, your exact metabolic demands and responses aren’t that easy to measure.

It is possible to approximate your basal metabolic rate — in other words, the energy cost of keeping you alive. But measurements are only as good as the tools we use.

When it comes to metabolic measurement, the best tools are hermetically sealed metabolic chambers, but not many of us hang out in those on the regular.

Which means, while we may have our “metabolism” estimated at the gym, or by our fitness trackers, as with calorie counts on labels, these estimates can be off by 20-30 percent in normal, young, healthy people. They’re probably off by even more in other populations.

Of course, if we could accurately measure how much energy you’re expending every day, and then accurately measure exactly how much energy you’re taking in and absorbing, we could decide whether you were truly “eating too little” for your body’s requirements.

But even if we could know this outside the lab, which we can’t, it wouldn’t be useful. Because energy output is dynamic, meaning that every variable changes whenever any other variable changes (see below).

In other words, unless we can exactly measure energy inputs and outputs from minute to minute, we can’t know for sure what your metabolism is doing and how it matches the food you’re eating.

So, most of the time, we have to guess. And our guesses aren’t very good.

Not only that, but the idea of “eating too little” is subjective.

Think about it. By “eating too little”, do you mean…

  • Eating less than normal?
  • Eating less than you’ve been told to eat?
  • Eating less than feels right?
  • Eating less than you need to be healthy?
  • Eating less than your estimated metabolic rate?
  • Eating less than your actual metabolic rate?

And how often does that apply? Are you…

  • Eating too little at one meal?
  • Eating too little on one day?
  • Eating too little every day?
  • Eating too little almost every day but too much on some days?

Without clarity on some of these questions, you can see how easy it is to assume you’re “eating too little” but still not eating less than your actual energy expenditure, even if you did some test to estimate your metabolic rate and it seems like you’re eating less than that number.

Most times, the problem is perception.

As human beings, we’re bad at correctly judging how much we’re eating and expending. We tend to think we eat less and burn more than we do — sometimes by as much as 50 percent.

(Interestingly, lighter folks trying to gain weight often have the opposite problem: They overestimate their food intake and underestimate their expenditure.)

It’s not that we’re lying (though we can sometimes deceive ourselves, and others, about our intake). More than anything, it’s that we struggle to estimate portion sizes and calorie counts.

This is especially difficult today, when plates and portions are bigger than ever. And energy-dense, incredible tasting, and highly brain-rewarding “foods” are ubiquitous, cheap, and socially encouraged.

When folks start paying close attention to their portion sizes using their hands or food scales and measuring cups, they are frequently shocked to discover they are eating significantly more than they imagined.

(I once had a client discover he was using ten tablespoons of olive oil — 810 calories — rather than the two tablespoons — 162 calories — he thought he was using in his stir-fry. Oops.)

At other times, we can be doing everything right at most meals, but energy can sneak when we don’t realize it.

Here’s a perfect story to illustrate this.

A few years ago Dr. Berardi (JB, as he’s known around here) went out to eat with some friends at a well-known restaurant chain. He ordered one of their “healthier” meals that emphasized protein, veggies, and “clean” carbs. Then he finished off dinner with cheesecake.

Curious about how much energy he’d consumed, he looked it up.

Five. Thousand. Calories.

Incredibly, he hadn’t even felt that full afterwards.

If the calorie content of that one meal surprised someone with the expertise and experience of JB, how would most “normal” eaters fare? Good luck trying to “eyeball” things.

Also imagine a scenario where you were under-eating almost every meal during the week and maintaining an estimated negative energy balance of about -3,500 calories. Then, during one single meal, a “healthy” menu option plus dessert, you accumulated 5,000 calories.

That one meal would put you in a theoretically positive energy balance for the week (+1,500 calories), leading to weight gain!

Seriously, how would you feel if, after eating 20 “perfect” meals in a row and 1 “not so bad” meal, you gained weight? You’d probably feel like your metabolism was broken.

You’d probably feel like it’s possible to gain weight from eating too little.

But, again, the laws of thermodynamics aren’t broken. Rather, a whole bunch of calories snuck in without you realizing it.

Even more, the dynamic nature of metabolism can be confusing.

Another reason it can be easy to believe you gained weight eating too little (or at least didn’t lose weight when eating less) is because your metabolism isn’t like a computer.

For instance, you might have heard that one pound of fat is worth 3,500 calories, so if you cut 500 calories per day, you’ll lose one pound per week (7 x 500 = 3,500).

(Unless, of course, you downed 5,000 calories in a single meal at the end of the week, in which case you’d be on track to gain weight).

Except this isn’t how human metabolism works. The human body is a complex and dynamic system that responds quickly to changes in its environment.

When you undereat, especially over a longer period (that part is important), this complex system adapts.

Here’s an example of how this might play out:

  • You expend less energy in digestion because you’re eating less.
  • Resting metabolic rate goes down because you weigh less.
  • Calories burned through physical activity go down since you weigh less.
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (daily-life fidgeting, movement) goes down and you expend less energy through the day.
  • Your digestion slows down, and you absorb more energy from your food.


Your body will also adjust hormonal feedback and signaling loops. For instance:

  • Appetite and hunger hormones go up (i.e. we want to eat more, are more stimulated by food cues, may have more cravings).
  • Satiety hormones go down (which means it’s harder for us to feel full or satisfied).
  • Thyroid hormones and sex hormones (both of which are involved in metabolic rate) go down.

Your planned 500 calorie daily deficit can quickly become 400, 300, or even 200 calories (or fewer), even if you intentionally exercise as much as you had before.

And, speaking of exercise, the body has similar mechanisms when we try to out-exercise an excessive intake.

For example, research suggests that increasing physical activity above a certain threshold (by exercising more) can trigger:

  • More appetite and more actual calories eaten
  • Increased energy absorption
  • Lowered resting or basal metabolism
  • Less fidgeting and spontaneous movement (aka NEAT)

In this case, here’s what the equation would look like:

These are just two of the many examples we could share.

There are other factors, such as the health of our gastrointestinal microbiota, our thoughts and feelings about eating less (i.e. whether we view eating less as stressful), and so on.

The point is that metabolism is much more complicated (and interdependent) than most people realize.

All of this means that when you eat less, you may lose less weight than you expect. Depending how much less you eat, and for how long, you may even re-gain weight in the long run thanks to these physiological and behavioral factors.

Plus, humans are incredibly diverse.

Our metabolisms are too.

While the “average” responses outlined above are true, our own unique responses, genetics, physiology, and more means that our calorie needs will differ from the needs of others, or the needs predicted by laboratory tools (and the equations they rely on).

Let’s imagine two people of the same sex, age, height, weight, and lean body mass. According to calculations, they should have the exact same energy expenditure, and therefore energy needs.

However, we know this is not the case.

For instance:

  • Your basal metabolic rate — remember, that’s the energy you need just to fuel your organs and biological functions to stay alive — can vary by 15 percent. For your average woman or man, that’s roughly 200-270 calories.
  • Genetic differences matter too. A single change in one FTO gene can be an additional 160 calorie difference.
  • Sleep deprivation can cause a 5-20 percent change in metabolism, so there’s another 200-500 calories.
  • For women, the phase of their menstrual cycle can affect metabolism by another 150 calories or so.

Even in the same individual, metabolism can easily fluctuate by 100 calories from day to day, or even over the course of a day (for instance, depending on circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping).

Those differences can add up quickly, and this isn’t even an exhaustive list.

If you want to dig really deep into the factors that influence our energy balance, check this out:

The multifactorial nature of body weight. Click the image to launch the full-size version.

In the end, hopefully you can see how equations used to predict calorie needs for the “average” person might not be accurate for you. And that’s why you could gain weight (or not lose weight) eating a calorie intake that’s below your measured (estimated) expenditure.

It’s also why some experts, who aren’t knowledgeable about the limitations of metabolic measurement, will try to find all sorts of complicated hormonal or environmental causes for what they think is a violation of thermodynamics.

The answer, however, is much simpler than that.

The estimates just weren’t very good.

And yes, water retention is a thing.

Cortisol is one of our “stress hormones”, and it has effects on our fluid levels.

Food and nutrient restriction is a stressor (especially if we’re anxious about it). When we’re stressed, cortisol typically goes up. People today report being more stressed than ever, so it’s easy to tip things over into “seriously stressed”.

When cortisol goes up, our bodies may hold onto more water, which means we feel “softer” and “less lean” than we actually are. This water retention can mask the fat loss that is occurring, making it seem like we aren’t losing fat and weight, when in fact we are.

Here’s an example.

A good friend of mine (and former high school hockey teammate) was struggling to make the NHL. He had played several seasons in the AHL (one step down from the NHL) and had just been called up to the pros.

The NHL club wanted him to stay below 220 lbs (100 kg), which was a challenge for him at 6’2”. He found that eating a lower-carb diet allowed him to maintain a playing weight around 218 lbs.

Yet his nutrition coach told him it was OK to have some occasional higher-carb days.

Unfortunately for him, he had one of these higher-carb days — going out for sushi with his teammates — right before his first NHL practice.

The next day, when reporting to the NHL team, he was called into the GM’s office to get weighed. He was 232 lbs (105 kg).

Thanks, carbs and salt!

My friend was crushed. Even worse, two days later he was back to 218 lbs.

OK, but what if I track my intake and expenditure meticulously?

You might be nodding your head, beginning to realize how complex metabolism is. How inaccurate calorie counts can be. How variable we all are. How much the body seeks to maintain the status quo. And how poor we are at estimating our own intake and expenditure.

But what if you are meticulously tracking intake? Logging your meals? Counting your steps? Even hitting a local research lab to measure your metabolism? And things still aren’t adding up?

Well, it goes back to what we’ve discussed so far:

  • The calorie counts of the foods you’ve logged might be higher than expected, either because of erroneous labeling or because of small errors in your own measurement.
  • Your energy needs might be lower than calculated (or even measured). This may be because…
  • You’re expending less energy through movement than your fitness tracker or exercise machine suggests.
  • You have less lean mass as you think, or it may not be as energy-consuming as you expect.
  • You’re absorbing more energy in digestion than you realize (for instance, if your gastrointestinal transit time is slow, or your microbiota are really good at extracting nutrients).

Maybe you’re just missing some data.

As mentioned above, while you’re probably not outright lying, it could be that you’re also “forgetting” to account for the few bites of your kids’ chicken nuggets that you didn’t want to go to waste. Or that extra spoonful of peanut butter. Or the large glass of wine you counted as a ‘medium’. Likewise, the calorie counts on those food labels can be (and often are) off.

Maybe you’re counting your workout as high intensity, even though you spent much of it sitting on a bench between low-rep strength sets. Maybe you were so hungry afterwards, you ate more than you intended (but figured it was all going to muscle-building, so no biggie).

It happens; we’re all human.

Measuring and tracking your energy intake carefully can help.

When we measure and track for a while, we become more aware of what we’re eating, get a more realistic idea of our portion sizes, and help ourselves be consistent and accountable.

But measuring and tracking definitely is not a perfect strategy.

It can be stressful and time-consuming. Most people don’t want to do it forever.

And it may misrepresent the “exact” calories we consume versus the “exact” calories we burn, which can lead us to believe we’re eating less than we’re burning, even when we’re not.

What about legitimate medical problems?

Whenever we arrive at this point of the discussion folks usually ask about whether underlying health problems, or medications, can affect their metabolism, weight, and/or appetite.

The answer is yes.

This includes things like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), certain pharmaceuticals (corticosteroids or birth control), severe thyroid dysfunction, sex hormone disruption, leptin resistance, and more.

However, this is less common than most people think, and even if you do have a health issue, your body still isn’t breaking the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s just — as discussed above — that your calorie expenditure is lower than predicted. And a few extra calories may be sneaking in on the intake side.

The good news: weight loss is still possible (albeit at a slower pace).

If you truly feel that you are accurately estimating intake, exercising consistently at least 5-7 hours a week, managing your sleep and stress, getting expert nutritional coaching, and covering absolutely all the fundamentals, then it may be time to consider further conversations and testing with your doctor.

So what can you do?

If you feel your intake is less than your needs, (in other words, you’re eating what feels like ‘too little’) but you still aren’t losing weight, here are some helpful next steps to try.

Measure your intake.

Use whatever tools you prefer. Your hands, scales and spoons, pictures, food logs, etc. It doesn’t matter.

Track your intake for a few days or a full week, to see if it adds up to what you “thought” you were eating. We are often surprised.

Sometimes, just the act of tracking increases our awareness of our intake, which helps us make better choices.

Be compassionate with yourself.

It may feel like being strict or critical is a good approach, but it isn’t. It just makes you more stressed out.

Conversely, research shows that being kind and gentle with yourself (while still having some grown-up honesty about your decisions) helps you have a healthier body composition, make wise food choices, stick to your fitness goals better, feel less anxious and stressed, and have a better relationship with food overall.

There are going to be meals or days where you don’t eat as you “should”. It’s OK. It happens to everyone. Recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself, and then get back on track.

Choose mostly less-processed whole foods.

Foods that aren’t hyper-rewarding or hyper-palatable are harder to over-eat. They don’t cause hypothalamic inflammation and leptin resistance.

They have lots of good stuff (vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, phytonutrients, disease-fighting chemicals, etc.) and are usually lower in calories.

And they are usually far better at keeping you full and satisfied.

Choose whole foods that you enjoy and will eat consistently.

Play with macronutrient levels.

Some people respond better to more carbs and fewer fats. Others respond better to higher fats and few carbs.

There’s no single best diet for everyone. We all have different preferences, and even different responses to foods and macronutrients. So play with this a bit, and find what works for you.

Own your decisions.

Let your adult values and deeper principles guide you when you sit down to eat. Make food choices by acknowledging the outcome you would expect.

Avoid playing mental games like “If I’m ‘good’ then I get to be ‘bad”, or “If I pretend I didn’t eat the cookies, then it didn’t happen”.

Face your behavior with open eyes, maturity, and wisdom.

Accept that all choices have consequences.

And appreciate that it’s OK to indulge sometimes.

If you are still having trouble, get coaching.

Behavior change and sustained weight loss are hard. Especially when we try to go it alone.

Seek out a qualified and compassionate coach or professional who can help you navigate these tricky waters.

(Might I suggest Precision Nutrition Coaching?)

If you’re a coach or professional, here’s how to help people with this.

If you’re working with clients or patients as a service provider, be empathetic. Remember, it can be incredibly easy to believe that we’re “doing everything right” and yet not seeing results.

Instead of jumping to conclusions or rushing in with reasons why your client isn’t succeeding, instead, follow these steps:

Step 1: Be compassionate and curious.

Understand that most people in this space are probably frustrated and/or beating themselves up. Don’t dial up some “tough love” and call them liars.

Be empathetic and gently curious.

Step 2: Gather (accurate) data.

Have people show you what they’re doing to the best of their ability. Pictures, food logs, tracking apps… whatever suits their level of ready, willing and able.

While meticulous tracking isn’t usually a good long-term solution, it can help both of you to get some more accurate data.

Step 3: Have a crucial conversation.

If you think this means being Coach Hardass, you are off the mark. Remember:

  • You are both working together in an alliance against the problem, not against each other.
  • You both want your client or patient to succeed.

Bring facts to the table, not opinions. What you see and what they see are likely different.

Step 4: Help them feel safe.

If someone is hiding from you foods that they ate, that is at least partly your responsibility.

For whatever reason, the individual doesn’t feel comfortable telling you they aren’t doing what they think they should.

This needs to be explored together. Slowly. Gently. With a curious, and non-judgemental mind.

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A final note on body composition.

Before wrapping up I wanted to mention something important.

In this article I decided to focus only on the body weight implications of the energy balance equation because that’s all the equation really describes (i.e. net transfers of energy).

Changes in body composition (i.e. your relative proportions of lean tissue and body fat) are, if you can believe it, much more complicated and far less comprehensively studied.

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If you’re a coach, or you want to be…

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes (including how to manage energy balance) — in a way that supports long-term progress — is both an art and a science.

If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.

What’s it all about?

The Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification is the world’s most respected nutrition education program. It gives you the knowledge, systems, and tools you need to really understand how food influences a person’s health and fitness. Plus the ability to turn that knowledge into a thriving coaching practice.

Developed over 15 years, and proven with nearly 100,000 clients and patients, the Level 1 curriculum stands alone as the authority on the science of nutrition and the art of coaching.

Whether you’re already mid-career, or just starting out, the Level 1 Certification is your springboard to a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification Master Class. It’s an exclusive, year-long mentorship designed for elite professionals looking to master the art of coaching and be part of the top 1% of health and fitness coaches in the world.]

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save up to 33% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

We’ll be opening up spots in our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018.

If you want to find out more, we’ve set up the following presale list, which gives you two advantages.

  • Pay less than everyone else. We like to reward people who are eager to boost their credentials and are ready to commit to getting the education they need. So we’re offering a discount of up to 33% off the general price when you sign up for the presale list.
  • Sign up 24 hours before the general public and increase your chances of getting a spot. We only open the certification program twice per year. Due to high demand, spots in the program are limited and have historically sold out in a matter of hours. But when you sign up for the presale list, we’ll give you the opportunity to register a full 24 hours before anyone else.

If you’re ready for a deeper understanding of nutrition, the authority to coach it, and the ability to turn what you know into results… this is your chance to see what the world’s top professional nutrition coaching system can do for you.

The post Can you gain weight from eating too little? No, but here’s why it’s so easy to think you can. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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