At some point a few decades ago, it became a widely held belief that you could be healthy—and attractive—only if you were lean. Here's the truth. 

The ‘overweight equals unhealthy’ equation really isn't quite that simple. Even more shaky, particularly for mature adults, is the equation that ‘losing weight equals better health’.

In fact, new research shows that the drastic calorie-cutting strategies and scale-watching that slimmed jiggly thighs in your 20s, 30s or 40s can set you up for bone fractures, weak muscles and weight gain in your 50s, 60s or 70s.

Even worse, those popular weight-loss approaches fail to target the belly fat that causes serious weight-related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. In reality, significant weight loss—either intentional or unintentional—can be life-threatening after the age of 60.

Here's what we know:

 

Losing weight means losing muscle

weak muscles

Older adults naturally have less muscle density than in their 20s, 30s or 40s. So their metabolism slows and thus burns fewer calories during the day. Losing weight accelerates this process.

If you lose 5kg (11lb) on an old-fashioned low-cal diet, you'll drop 2.5kg (5.5 lb) of fat and 2.5kg (5.5lb) of muscle that you can't afford to lose, say experts. Losing that much muscle will lower your metabolism even further, so you're burning 150 to 250 fewer calories a day.  

Less muscle also means you'll be weaker, with less balance and flexibility, raising the odds for a fall. And once your diet ends, you're likely to regain lost weight as fat.

If it's around your middle, it will pump out chemicals that fire up chronic, low-level inflammation throughout your body, raising your odds of developing insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer's disease and some cancers.

 

Dieting threatens bones, too

exercise bad for bones

Many studies have shown that among older people, weight loss—whether deliberate or because of illness—leads to loss of bone mineral density. This applies especially to women from the menopause onwards, and increases their risk of sustaining a fracture.

You'll never know you've lost bone density or muscle from bathroom scales. And scales won't tell you if you have too much visceral fat—the kind packed inside your abdomen that raises the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

So, rather than eating to lose weight, focus on eating for good nutrition and disease prevention. Then get the exercise you need to build more smooth, dense, strong muscle.

Plenty of dramatic studies prove that women and men as old as their late 80s and 90s who stick to a simple, safe, resistance-training programme can build strength and agility, replace puffy fat with sleek muscle, and develop a renewed zest for life.

In one landmark study conducted at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, 40 women aged 50 to 70 who swapped their non-exercising routine for a twice-a-week weight-training programme built muscle, lost fat, developed stronger bones and became physically stronger than their daughters.

They were slimmer, happier, stronger and healthier. Yet the scales barely budged.

 

What if you find yourself losing weight without even trying?

weight loss

Do pay attention to the scales in that case, and always tell your doctor.

Unplanned weight loss may be a sign of nutritional deficiency, hormone imbalance, medication side effects, depression, infection or serious illness.

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