Environmental Toxins, Body Composition, and Weight Issues as You Age

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

Throughout my 39 years of medical practice, the one non-emergency medical question that is presented to me more often than anything else is, “Dr. Tanner, how can I get this weight off?”  Now granted, the societal expectations of what “normal” weight looks like must be understood, and keeping one’s desires and goals within reason is very important.  But, in general, it always seems that weight loss as we age, or simply maintaining a healthy weight as the years pass, has been a daunting task for many. And, while holding onto extra pounds and weight-loss resistance may not seem to be problems related to mold and mold exposure, I can assure you that there is an intimate and often unrecognized connection.

Before I begin, I do want to acknowledge that there are patients who have lost significant weight and had difficulty maintaining a high enough body weight. When biotoxin exposure is at play, undesirable weight loss can and does occur, but, for the most part, it has been my experience that those who need to gain weight typically fall into the minority. It is not just for weight loss that I want to address this topic, though, because some of the same issues that cause weight gain can impact undesired weight loss too; therefore, I hope that the steps outlined below help both sides of the issue even though my focus will be more towards those with higher body mass in this particular article.

Measuring One’s Weight

The old insurance tables for what a “healthy” weight should be are usually based on an old formula relating to height: for women, it is roughly 100 pounds for 5 feet with 3-5 pounds per inch added over 5 feet, depending on bone size.  For men, it is 110 pounds per 5 feet with 5-7 pounds added per inch of height over 5 feet. This, of course, is an old rule of thumb and does not take into account body mass and fat ratio.  There are plenty of people with a normal to thin bodyweight based on these numbers who have very little muscle mass and actually have a lot of visceral fat, that is, the fat that surrounds internal organs.  There are many ways of measuring body mass.  Some home scales do this, and while not always accurate, particularly if a person is dehydrated, they still give more of an indication of muscle mass and body composition.  There are also calipers that can measure the fat layer of the body in different areas, again giving some indication of how much body fat overall is present.  I do recommend combining some of these possibilities of assessment to get more of the full picture of where you may fall in the continuum. As you can see all of these methods give approximations, not absolute numbers, so combining them is the best way to get an accurate picture of your weight and body composition as it relates to your health.

Weight Gain vs. Losing Weight After 40

Recent research shows that, on average, adults gain 1-2 pounds per year during adulthood. This might not seem like a lot, but it certainly can add up over time. Weight gain at this rate equates to gaining about 10–20 extra pounds each decade. If you are adding weight based on that estimation, from your early 20s to early 50s, this could mean that you end up carrying around an extra 20-40 pounds. That is more weight than most of us want or need.

Women sometimes feel that weight gain during middle age is inevitable and those who struggle to lose weight often blame their hormones or slowing metabolisms. Actually, weight gain during menopause is very common. Statistics show that many women tend to gain 10-15 pounds, on average, during and shortly after menopause. However, weight gain is NOT a foregone conclusion. In fact, there is a big range for weight gain seen among menopausal and post-menopausal women, ranging from three to 30 pounds depending on lifestyle.

Reasons for Weight Gain

A study published in the journal, Science, in 2021, supported the notion that the main reason for weight gain during middle age was increased food intake and decreased physical activity such that the net caloric intake is higher among both men and women after age 40. This is true to some extent, but in looking at the specific food diaries of my patients, I believe that there is much more to it than that, especially when it comes to those with exposures to mold and other toxins.  A person’s total body load of toxicity can present a real challenge to weight loss and could be a more influential factor in the body hanging on to fat than some people realize. And, while weight or body composition would not be my first reason for telling a patient to clean up his/her environment, it certainly is impacted and will be difficult to improve without doing so.

Some other reasons that things seem to change after 40 when it comes to weight may be attributed to the following:

Reduced muscle mass, mostly due to having a sedentary lifestyle and completing less daily physical activities.

High-calorie food consumption due to eating a diet high in processed foods (or even worse, ultra-processed foods).

Low intake of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats like omega-3s.

Insulin resistance, a condition where the body does not respond to the hormone insulin and is unable to convert glucose into energy, often interferes with appetite leading to more weight gain in the midsection.

Chronic stress and depression can increase cortisol and other “stress hormones” that lead to fat accumulation plus cravings.

Sleep deprivation can interfere with normal metabolic functions and is associated with obesity, hypertension, and other metabolic disorders.

Use of some medications, such as antidepressants, can contribute to weight gain.

Achieving a Healthy Weight

We have extensive previous articles on detox so I will not repeat that now, but proper detoxification and opening up your body’s many pathways of detoxification truly must accompany other efforts in order for success in weight maintenance to be achieved. Toxins, especially mold and mycotoxins in the environment, must also be addressed. Mold exposure can cause hormone disruption, leptin resistance  (a reduced sensitivity in the brain to leptin decreasing appetite suppression and energy expenditure, which causes an increased food intake and can lead to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and other metabolic disorders), insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, bloating, and much more that cause a body to hang onto fat and to resist weight loss. Thus, cleaning up any environmental exposures should always, always come at the top of the list. But, what are other things can you do to normalize body weight, especially after 40?

Here are some tips and tricks that work for my patients:

1. Keep a food log or journal of your daily food intake. It sheds light on your habits and patterns that you may be overlooking. Studies have supported that food tracking, either by keeping a log or using a phone app helps maintain long-term weight loss.

2. Clean Up Your Diet! First and foremost, you must be aware of your food choices and how many calories you are consuming.

Here is how:

– Remove as many processed foods from your diet as possible, especially calorie-dense ones like desserts, chips, fried foods, pizza, processed meats, frozen meals, and sugary drinks. Many studies show that limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be the most effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment since processed foods considerably increase how many calories people consume. It is interesting (but not surprising) that these recommendations follow almost to a “T” what we tell patients with chronic candida and mold issues!

– Choose real, whole foods whenever possible. Try eating mostly things that are one or two ingredients and free of added sugar, preservatives, fat, and flavorings.

– Fill up on high-fiber foods, like vegetables, fruits, salads, beans, broth-based soups, and whole grains. These foods make you feel fuller, are high in nutrients, and are generally lower in calories.

– Include protein with every meal. Proteins include such foods as fish, yogurt, meat, or legumes, all of which help to control your appetite. For some people, low-carb diets that include more protein and healthy fats (such as the keto diet) can also be effective for weight loss. Adequate protein intake helps in stabilizing insulin levels, the fluctuation of which can really stimulate appetite and decrease metabolic rate.

– Pay attention to portion sizes. The excessive size of restaurant servings has been noted in many publications.  Sometimes a restaurant portion is enough for 2-3 meals, not a single sitting!

– Practice mindful eating. Notice how much food you consume with each meal and how often you snack. The food log is especially helpful here.

– Intermittent fasting may be beneficial for some people, but that is an entire topic for another day as each person is very different and the practice should be tweaked to account for that.

3. Meal Planning and Preparation. Set aside a few hours each week for grocery shopping and meal preparation, which will prevent you from eating out and will limit last-minute decisions that can be unhealthy. Many people have success with meal prepping on the weekends, such as by making a few staples each week, including some vegetables, a healthy protein, and some nutritious on-the-go snacks. Cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables to have on hand in the refrigerator is another smart habit to get into.

4. Exercise Consistently. To maintain muscle mass, mobility, and overall functionality, keep incorporating movement and different types of exercises into your daily routine. As you age, you might find it harder to do high-intensity workouts (although these have many metabolic benefits), but things like brisk walking, jogging, using an elliptical, weight training, swimming and cycling are still great options. Aim for a mix of aerobic and resistance-training exercises each day. This combination is beneficial for muscle growth,  heart health, metabolic rate, brain health, and immune system function. Strength/resistance training is especially helpful for maintaining a healthy metabolic rate since muscle requires more energy (calories) to be maintained.  Muscle tissue contains a large number of mitochondria, which are the energy centers of each cell and the body as a whole. In addition to exercising, try to limit the amount of time that you’re sedentary each day. Smartwatches have an alarm when you have been sitting too long at the computer, television, and other tasks.  Considering a standing desk when you can at least gets you off your seat!

5. Get Enough Sleep and Manage Stress. Sleep deprivation interferes with many important hormones and is associated with an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. Chronic stress can also cause weight gain because it increases the production of cortisol, a hormone that can cause an increased appetite and more fat to be stored in your belly. Both a lack of sleep and chronic stress can make it harder to have the energy to be active during the day. Studies show that being tired tends to worsen cravings for unhealthy foods, and it interferes with how your body regulates insulin and glucose.

Here are some suggestions on  ways to deal with stress and promote better sleep:

– Aim to sleep between seven and nine hours per night, which is what most adults require to remain metabolically healthy.

– Establish good sleep habits, such as creating a “wind-down” bedtime routine that makes you feel calm. Try to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time each night. This regulates your circadian rhythm (aka your internal clock), which plays a role in your metabolism. Make a point to disconnect from your digital devices at night, including your phone, TV, and computer, so blue light emitted from these devices doesn’t keep your brain turned on and make you feel restless.

– To relieve stress, try breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, reading, journaling, therapy, and spending time in nature. All of these can help trigger the body’s relaxation response, and they may improve your sleep.

– Limit how much caffeine and alcoholic drinks you consume, especially close to bedtime. Experts recommend no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and no more than two a day for men.

– During the daytime, get some sunlight exposure. This can help normalize your circadian rhythm, and it will increase your vitamin D levels. Studies show that people with normal vitamin D levels tend to have an easier time shedding weight than those who do not.

6. Finally, if you have had a burden of toxins, connect with a practitioner trained in environmental illness to help you address it. Exposure to toxins, as stated before, can impact many hormonal functions, including growth hormone, thyroid, adrenals, and sex hormones.  Evaluation of these hormonal factors is very important, but bear in mind that successful interventions require all of the aforementioned suggestions as well! Our bodies are meant to function synergistically with our environments. If one is out of balance, the other is always eventually impacted.

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