Obesity is one of the most prevalent health problems in the United States, and it affects all demographics. These include a startling statistic among adults aged 55 and above. According to the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University, about 15 million of them are already obese. That’s about 25 percent of the older adult population.
Fortunately, the most common practical strategies of losing and maintaining weight can still work regardless of age. One of these is the calorie deficit.
How a Calorie Deficit Benefits Seniors
What is a calorie deficit? It is the difference between the actual calorie intake and the number of calories the body needs to function, especially at rest (that is, the person isn’t doing anything).
A calorie is actually a unit of energy the food releases when the body breaks it down. Humans need it for a variety of tasks, from brain processing to digesting food. This explains why people consider their basal metabolic rate (BMR) when calculating their ideal calories.
The many types of food have different calories. If a person eats more than they should, the body stores them as fat.
At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with that. It is even the body’s survival mechanism in case it needs energy but the supply of food or sugar is low. It just breaks down fat storage.
The problem happens when people eat more calories regularly while the energy expenditure is low or doesn’t change. The body accumulates more fat, including around the belly.
This type of fat, called abdominal or visceral obesity, is different from the one that builds up under the skin or subcutaneously. It can release and mimic certain hormones and increase the risk of inflammation. Both can worsen the odds of developing chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and hypertension.
Worse, older adults inherently have a much slower metabolism. They use up calories a lot slower than they were in their teens or twenties.
Calorie Deficit Benefits
How can then a calorie deficit help older adults? In a 2021 study by the American Heart Association (AHA), reducing the calorie intake by at least 250 a day, and then combining it with moderate exercise, can improve vascular health among obese seniors.
For the randomized controlled trial, over 150 sedentary adults between 65 and 79 years old participated. Their BMI ranged from 30 to 45 kg/m2, which meant they were slightly to morbidly obese.
The researchers grouped the participants into three, who then needed to follow a program for 20 weeks. The first group exercised but ate a regular diet, the second performed moderate exercises and restricted their calories to 250 a day, while the third also did exercise but ate 600 calories less.
During the process, the team also assessed aortic stiffness or the hardening of the walls of the aorta, which is the primary artery that delivers blood from the heart to other areas of the body.
At the end of the twenty-week period, those who exercised and reduced their calories significantly improved the stiffness of their aorta while losing 10 percent of their total body weight or roughly 20 pounds. Changes in the body fat percentage, total fat mass, and waist circumference were also more pronounced among the calorie-restricted group. Even better, weight loss was similar for the second and third groups, which means one doesn’t need to decrease their calories much to get the benefit of a calorie deficit.
Challenges of Doing a Calorie Deficit
Eating less is easier said than done for plenty of seniors, though, which explains the importance of having professional support. In fact, those aging in place alone may benefit from senior living where nutritionists, dietitians, and other food experts can prepare and monitor their diet.
A 2018 research once showed that obesity can dull a person’s sense of taste. Thus, in order to achieve the same feelings of reward, they may end up eating more. With seniors, aging and medications can already alter taste and smell, and this change may trigger them to consume more food to enjoy it.
Furthermore, aging, coupled with a lack of exercise, can lead to reduced muscle strength. One study even suggests that when a person turns 60, they could lose as much as 25 percent of their hand grip because of the disappearance of muscle fibers. This means seniors may struggle with cooking food by themselves. To cope, they may rely on processed and fast food.
As a caveat, maintaining a calorie deficit isn’t for everyone. They even need the approval of their doctor before they can do that. But for obese individuals, it is a practical solution to improving their weight and living more healthily that they can consider.