Preventing muscle loss is something many people don’t worry about or attempt to do. After all, most people don’t think about losing muscle. It happens so gradually they don’t notice it. They may not realize anything has changed until they’re older.
When they’re in the 40s or 50s, they’ll start noticing they don’t have the strength to do the things they once did with ease. Household chores. Shopping. Climbing a flight of stairs. Even walking a few feet to the mailbox is a challenge.
Sadly, life only becomes more of a challenge if they don’t take action to preserve and build muscle. Age-related muscle loss — a condition called sarcopenia — can lead to disability, falls, and even death.
Preventing Muscle Loss is Crucial as You Age
Preventing muscle loss is crucial as you age. In an interview with Prevention magazine, Doug Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, states that people lose around 1% muscle mass per year after the age of 40.
But that doesn’t have to occur. Science shows preventing muscle loss is possible, and it is not that difficult to do. All it takes is proper nutrition and proper exercise.
Preventing Muscle Loss: Just a Concern for Older People?
Older people are not the only ones who need to learn techniques for preventing muscle loss. Though muscle loss is common with age, especially when combined with inactivity, it is not just age-related. Another key trigger for muscle loss is starvation dieting and lack of proper exercise.
Let’s discuss both types.
Preventing Muscle Loss and Sarcopenia
Muscle loss is common with age, especially after the age of 50. Our muscle cells are in a continual process of growth, called “anabolism,” and teardown, called “catabolism.” This is accomplished through a signaling process between growth hormones and protein-destroying enzymes. The aging process appears to make the muscles resistant to growth hormones, leaving them with just the signals from the protein-destroying hormones. Muscle loss is the inevitable result.
There are, however, a couple additional risk factors for developing sarcopenia.
Inactivity: The muscles need resistance to trigger the entire breakdown and rebuild cycle, and research shows you are never too old to build muscle!
Insufficient intake of protein: Studies show that alarming numbers of seniors have protein deficiencies. This is likely because of the physical effort of cooking and chewing required of protein. Consuming enough protein is essential for normal, healthy muscle mass because protein is made of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle.
Inability to digest and absorb protein: Many seniors cannot absorb some nutrients as easily as they did in their younger years.
Symptoms of Sarcopenia
Symptoms of sarcopenia include:
- Muscle Degeneration
- Decreased Activity
- Mobility Issues
- Weak Bones (Sarcopenia often accompanies osteoporosis.)
- Decrease in resting metabolic rate, leading to weight gain, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, abnormal cholesterol/triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure
These are terrible symptoms and conditions that do not have to occur. Preventing muscle loss with nutrition can stop, slow, or reverse this process.
Preventing Muscle Loss and Starvation Dieting
The second most common cause of muscle loss is starvation dieting. If you struggle with your weight, you have probably been on a starvation diet at some point in your life. Any time you consume significantly fewer calories than your body needs — especially if those calories are low-calorie ones, coming from processed foods, starchy carbs, and sugars — you are on a starvation diet.
Starvation diets are popular because people believe in the calorie-deficit theory of weight loss. That is, if you eat a certain number of calories fewer than your body needs, you will lose a certain number of pounds. And it seems to work. You do lose weight on a starvation diet. But here’s the thing…almost none of the weight you lose comes from your fat stores.
That’s because your body needs a certain amount of fat to live. Your brain, digestive system, and hormones communicate with each other through a continuous feedback loop to maintain the level of fat your body “thinks” it should have. This is known as your setpoint weight.
When you go on a starvation diet, your body goes into a crisis mode. It is deprived of the nutrients and calories it needs to maintain your fat stores and keep you healthy. To protect itself, your body will burn as few calories as possible and store as many calories as possible as body fat.
Starvation Dieting Burns Muscle, Not Fat!
To help your setpoint weight stay stable, your body looks around for other sources of energy. It turns to muscle, which uses up a lot of energy (calories) just to maintain it on a daily basis. So, your body starts breaking down muscle to feed your fat cells. With less muscle, your setpoint inches up even higher, too.
Losing weight by slashing calories doesn’t work because your body finds the calories it needs, not from your fat stores but from your muscle. You’ll end up skinny fat, a condition in which you have too much body fat and not enough muscle. Even if you manage to keep the weight off, which is very unlikely, being skinny fat increases your risk for the same health problems that obesity does, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The only way to permanently lose weight from your fat stores is to lower your setpoint weight by eating SANE foods and making a few SANE lifestyle changes. And… preventing muscle loss with nutrition and proper exercise is the only way to lose weight permanently and retain and build muscle mass.
Preventing Muscle Loss with Nutrition
Though many experts focus on weight-bearing exercise as a way of preventing muscle loss, there are many ways nutrition helps build and maintain muscle. In fact, diet is almost equal to exercise in building lean muscle.
Here are some SANE Dietary changes that will aid you in preventing muscle loss.
Eat More Non-Starchy Vegetables, Especially Leafy Greens
Though nutrition and bodybuilding “experts” tend to focus on protein consumption as the main factor in building muscle, non-starchy vegetables are important, too. Studies show high-fiber, high-nutrient carbohydrates, such as non-starchy veggies, help to replenish glycogen muscle fibers after a vigorous workout.
Plus, non-starchy vegetables are loaded with specific nutrients your muscles need. For instance, leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, contain high amounts of magnesium, a nutrient that’s essential to muscle development. (Studies have found a correlation between muscle strength and levels of magnesium.) Green leafy vegetables also contain iron, a mineral essential for building muscle and strength. Green leafy vegetables, like other non-starchy veggies, also contain protein.
For help in preventing muscle loss, aim for eating at least 10 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day.
Eat More Nutrient-Dense Protein
Boosting your protein intake is not just recommended for bodybuilders. In fact, studies show you should consume considerably more protein than the current recommended guidelines if your goal is preventing muscle loss.
One such study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism reported how different amounts of protein affected the muscular health of 20 healthy adults ages 52 to 75. It found those who doubled the recommended daily allowance of protein increased their rates of muscle protein synthesis, which is the way cells use protein to build muscle. They also improved the balance between muscle protein synthesis and protein breakdown.
To trigger muscle protein synthesis, try to consume about 30 grams of protein 3 times per day, at every main meal. Adding organic clean whey protein to a green smoothie is an excellent way to increase your protein intake. Studies show whey protein powder is uniquely beneficial. It increases weight loss, develops and preserves muscle, and provides many other health benefits.
Eat More Whole-Food Fats
Eating proper types of dietary fat is important for many bodily functions, including preventing muscle loss, albeit indirectly. You see, fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and D, need a certain amount of dietary fat to be absorbed into the intestine. Vitamin D is essential for muscle strength. (See below.)
For help in preventing muscle loss, try to eat 3-6 servings of whole food fats per day.
Get More Sunshine
Though vitamin D is known for building strong bones and teeth, it also builds strong muscle. Studies show increased levels of vitamin D may improve muscle strength. Other studies show a link between vitamin D deficiency and reduced muscle mass, falls, and muscle weakness.
There are few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Some of these foods include salmon, tuna, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks. Other foods, such as dairy products and orange juices, are fortified with vitamin D. However, it is difficult or impossible to get an adequate amount of vitamin D from food alone.
Your best bet for getting enough vitamin D is spending more time in the sunshine. (Make sure your skin is bared.) Sunlight hits cholesterol in your skin cells, sparking vitamin D synthesis, and it doesn’t take very long to do so on a sunny day.
Preventing Muscle Loss with Proper Exercise
If your goal is preventing muscle loss, you are probably considering strength training and/or performing other weight-bearing exercises. Research does show these exercises work at preventing muscle loss.
But do you want something that just works — something that you really have to work at, meaning it takes up a lot of your time — or do you want something that is amazingly effective, but quite a bit less time-consuming?
If you chose the latter — and who wouldn’t?!!! — you’re in for surprise. This will turn everything you’ve ever learned about exercise on its head. Ready?
Okay. There are two types of traditional resistance training exercise contractions — concentric and eccentric.
Concentric occurs as the muscle is shortening, usually as you lift the resistance; ie, curling a dumbbell toward your chest with your arms. Eccentric occurs as the muscle is lengthening, usually as you lower the resistance; ie, lowering the dumbbell away from your chest with your arms.
Though exercisers and trainers tend to focus on the concentric action, studies show eccentric action is far more difficult. In fact, safely and slowly lowering weight allows you to use up to 40% more resistance. More resistance equals more total muscle fibers activated. This is important because the more muscle fibers that are activated, the more muscle is developed.
Traditional exercise, by the way, typically only activates one muscle fiber. This is why you can perform so many reps or can work out for 30-60 minutes at a time. But this is not effective for preventing muscle loss, significantly building muscle, lowering setpoint weight, or improving health.
Benefits of Eccentric Exercise
Many studies show eccentric exercise to be superior to traditional exercise at lowering setpoint weight and building lean muscle mass. Eccentric exercise has been shown in various studies to increase levels of growth hormones and testosterone, both of which improve muscle tone and development and increase muscle strength.
You can make any exercise an eccentric one by concentrating on the lowering part of the movement. If you’re performing a squat, for instance, slowly squat for a count of 10. Repeat 6 times. If you’re performing a push-up, begin in a plank position with body parallel to the floor. Keeping your body straight throughout the entire movement, begin slowly lowering yourself until your chest grazes the floor. (It is okay to work up to this level.) Lower your knees to the floor and return to the starting position.
The great thing about eccentric exercise, besides preventing muscle loss and lowering setpoint weight, is that you cannot do them often. It takes a good 4 days to heal your deep muscle fibers. So, you should perform eccentric exercises just once a week, for about 10 minutes.
The SANE Diet Way to Preventing Muscle Loss
The SANE Diet includes the foods necessary for preventing muscle loss: non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense proteins, whole-food fats. These foods are not only delicious and filling, but they also lower your setpoint weight and trigger muscle protein synthesis. Preventing weight loss is easy with the SANE Diet!
Next Step: Learn the Ways of Preventing Muscle Loss with the SANE
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