The Middle Age Spread And How To Combat It

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The reason so many people gain weight as they enter middle age is no mystery: if, as an example, you only eat 50 extra calories per day over a period of twenty years that you don’t burn off by exercising, it will result in a weight gain of 104 pounds. (Here’s the math: 50 extra Cal/day x 365 days/year=18,250 extra Cal/year. 18,250 extra Cal/year x 1 pound/3,500 Cal=5.2 extra pounds/year. 5.2 extra pounds/year x 20 years=104 pounds.)

Here are some examples of foods that are about 50 calories:

  • 12 strawberries, 48 calories
  • 6 dill pickles, 48 calories
  • ½ grapefruit, 39 calories
  • 1 cup of air-popped butter-free popcorn, 31 calories
  • ¼ cantaloupe melon, 48 calories
  • 10 grapes, 35 calories
  • 1 small pack raisins, 42 calories
  • 1 kiwi fruit, 47 calories
  • 1 rice cake with 1tbsp sugar-free jam, 45 calories
  • 7 carrot sticks with 1tbsp low-fat ranch dressing, 45 calories
  • 1 slice fresh pineapple, 45 calories
  • 1 small green apple, 50 calories
  • 10 cherries, 42 calories
  • 7 celery stalks, 45 calories

You get the point. It takes almost no effort whatsoever to overeat by this small amount, which, if done consistently—as most of us do—will over time turn a 150 pound 20-year-old into a 254 pound 40-year-old. I’m not suggesting these are the exact numbers that apply to everyone equally—or that will apply to you—but this is what accounts for the middle age spread. Now, keep in mind that these are 50 extra calories per day beyond what your body uses. (If you’re an Olympic swimmer and burn, say, 12,000 calories per day in exercise (as Michael Phelps was reputed to have done), and you only eat 50 calories above a standard diet of 1,800-2,500 Cal/day, you’ll actually die of starvation in less than a month.) The reason this is important is because as we age, if we don’t exercise (specifically, if we don’t engage in some kind of strength training) our muscles atrophy. And that matters because our basal metabolic rate (the number of calories we burn just sitting around doing nothing) is directly related to our lean body mass, meaning our muscle mass. Developing a lower lean body mass as we age because of inactivity means we burn fewer calories just sitting around as we age, which makes it easier for any calories we consume to be “extra.” Just how many total calories per day you have to eat to exceed your basal metabolic rate by 50 calories varies tremendously, which explains why not everyone suffers from middle age spread. Some people with a genetic tendency toward obesity, for example, can overeat by 50 calories on just a 1,200-1,500 Cal/day diet. On the face of it, this seems quite discouraging. But hidden inside this unfortunate state of affairs lies the very solution to the problem it creates: consistency. Consistency may be what gets us into this mess (meaning consistency in overeating by a small amount), but consistency can get us out of it. Our body weight, it turns out, isn’t correlated to our daily calorie intake. It’s correlated to our calorie intake over time. Thus, we don’t need to avoid eating those 50 extra calories every day. We need to avoid eating 50 extra calories/day on average. In other words, if you overeat by 50 calories/day three days a week, you only need to under-eat by 50 calories three days that same week to avoid a positive calorie balance. This means, in essence, you need to be consistent in controlling your calorie intake, even by small amounts, not on a daily basis, but on a weekly basis. Which means you can still indulge in a few brownies on Saturday night if on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday you skip the cream cheese on your bagels. Of course, you can have the cream cheese too if you exercise daily, which we should all do as well. The point I want to make here is that vast sums of weight are gained over time not by a few large indiscretions, but by consistent small ones—and that the only way to combat this is by using consistency in your favor. By making sure that, over time, your calorie balance is neutral, not positive. And because this must be done over time and not daily, there’s still ample room for you to enjoy yourself by indulging in mild amounts of overeating—as long as you are consistently inconsistent in doing it.

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  • You know I am a HUGE fan of yours, Alex, but as a bariatrician, I want to direct your attention (and your readers’) to the book “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes for a different perspective than what you present. He also wrote the book Good Calories Bad Calories and after reviewing the evidence and practicing weight management for the past three years, I have to say I agree with Gary’s conclusion that it’s an issue of carbohydrate to protein to fat ratio in our Westernized diets, and not a simple energy equation. In our diet carbs (which include fruits, whole grain pastas & rice, potatoes, & slow cooked beans) are king, and this exposure leads to insulin resistance in predisposed individuals which then starts the death spiral into metabolic syndrome including its complications of obesity and diabetes. Of course, our tendencies to eat mindlessly and supersize things contribute to the problem, as does our sedentary lifestyle, but I just had to chime in that many times a calorie is not just a calorie. I know too many thin people who eat poorly and too many fat people that eat well to embrace that philosophy. Thank you for bringing our attention to the calorie counts of many common snacks, though. I appreciate you stimulating conversation and remain a huge fan. 🙂

    Kara: I agree with Taubes’ conclusions as well. But I don’t think the two theories are mutually incompatible.


  • Your conclusions are completely correct. Just know that Weight Watchers has preached this approach for years. Weight loss and/or maintenance is a lifestyle and small daily actions have huge consequences, long term.

  • Your math about calories, etc., is probably right, but the point that extends from it—it takes a small amount of calories to gain an exorbitant amount of weight—may not be completely correct. Think about it. Even with our “obesity epidemic,” there is probably a limited distribution of weight range in the population. For example, eating “over” by 50 calories a day is quite easy, as you point out, yet many people are only 100 lbs overweight when they could quite easily be 200 lbs overweight, given enough time and quite small amounts of overeating and under-exercising. Why, then, do people tend to gain a certain amount of weight and stabilize within a certain range of that instead of ballooning out forever?

    The answer is partly, I think, because the body tends toward equilibrium. Yes, bigger bodies will burn more calories, curbing some of the tendency toward weight gain. But as Brian Wansink demonstrated in Mindless Eating, it is actually quite hard to calculate exactly how much we eat. The body will subconsciously eat a few handfuls of food (and it is quite easy to do this, as you demonstrate) or fidget slightly more to burn off extra calories. Conversely, if one tries to diet and undereats, the body will become tired and things one used to do to burn extra energy (pacing, climbing stairs, fidgeting) will inadvertently stop. It is actually quite hard to accurately calculate the calories one burns in a day because much depends on these little movements. Similarly, it is hard to calculate exactly how many calories ones eats. I saw an expose in the NYTimes that revealed that calorie amounts on food labels can be off by as much as 30%. This is not to mention that “good” food, like fruit, has irregular shapes and can’t really be calculated completely accurately.

    Basically, I do agree with your argument for consistency, but I would also like to add that I disagree with a managerial, calculative control to weight management, such as that advocated by old school weight-watchers or calorie counting or even most medical management. As I’ve demonstrated above, it is actually quite difficult to monitor and control calories in and calories out, even if these are the variables that make a difference with weight loss. And there is a risk in adopting this managerial role: the start of a diet has been corollated with disordered eating and eating disorders. So “diets” both don’t work and have a deleterious effect on mental health, which in my view is not minor. Better to focus on other goals like food quality, balance, and fitness than to adopt a managerial posture.