Building muscle as you age, by eating right, is not a once-size-fits-all formula. It depends on your starting point with one particular hormone – the Great Wizard of All Hormones – LEPTIN.
Your leptin signaling pathway has to work properly for you to have any chance at all for building or maintaining muscle mass no matter how old you are. Another minor detail is that your overall health and longevity depend on this pathway. Let’s not mince words here. Without your leptin pathway working well, you will eventually get sick. Then you will spend a huge amount of money on medical care and die young anyway.
Monster Surprises About Food
This post offers some general pointers on what ‘eating right’ means. After you take all that in, I have a couple of monster surprises about food for you. They are more than mere surprises, actually – they are real shockers. Read on or skip ahead. Either way, pay very close attention to what I have to say about these surprises.
Your life depends on it.
Previous posts about building muscle as you age provided insight into supplements (Building Muscle As You Age – Supplements) and exercise (Building Muscle As You Age – Exercise). The concepts and advice in those two posts are fairly simple and generally applicable to everyone, especially seniors.
When it comes to food, though, finding out what to do about eating right is like navigating a never-ending labyrinth of misinformation.
Unfortunately, this whole topic is a huge blind side in science. Basically, any advice about food, no matter how contradictory, has backing somewhere in scientific research. Even that godawful low-fat diet touted by Dr. Dean Ornish is supported by research articles in scientific journals.
Without going into a detailed critique, I’ll just say that the majority of such research is flawed in major ways. Conclusions based on such flawed research are not only invalid, they are wrong and even dangerous to your health.
Excuse me while I hold back on ranting here. So much dietary advice is just plain awful that it is hard to not get my dander up.
Of course, plenty of folks also think that my advice in this post is awful. I don’t envy you in deciding who is right, because you have to make good choices from among all the contradictions, for your own sake.
Nevertheless, below are some pointers about food that you can experiment with on your own (i.e., ‘biohack’ yourself) to see what works for you.
Before I get to that, though, take note of some crucial information about leptin.
Our understanding about this protein hormone has been expanding enormously since it was discovered in 1994. The first book that I read on it was called Mastering Leptin. The book is now in its third edition and still represents the seminal overview of leptin.
The latest views of leptin, which are incorporated into that third edition, describe how this hormone controls the impact of so many other hormones. That is why I referred to it as the Great Wizard of All Hormones earlier.
As aptly stated about leptin on Wikipedia: Leptin, the “satiety hormone,” is a hormone made by adipose [fat] cells that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger. Leptin is opposed by the actions of the hormone ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.” Both hormones act on receptors in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus to regulate appetite to achieve energy homeostasis [physiological stability]. In obesity, a decreased sensitivity to leptin occurs, resulting in an inability to detect satiety despite high energy stores.
In other words, leptin signals your brain (hypothalamus) when you have stored the right amount of body fat. When it isn’t working, you will continue to store more fat than you need (“high energy stores”). Translation: You are fat because the master hormone that is supposed to keep you slim is out of commission.
Furthermore, leptin controls a wild and crazy matrix of hormones that govern just about everything we do. Having leptin work the way it is supposed to work is crucial for the whole matrix.
Leptin Sensitivity vs. Leptin Resistance
Leptin is analogous in some ways to the more well-known hormone, insulin. As hormones, each is produced in certain cells, gets secreted and transported elsewhere in the body, gets received (on receptors), then does its thing once it gets there.
The leptin receptors are the key, just like they are for insulin receptors. When they are doing their job, leptin sensitivity is just right. When they aren’t, then leptin resistance ensues. Leptin receptors stop working when they are flooded with too much leptin for too long. The result is leptin resistance, which is bad news in every way.
SIDENOTE: When this happens with insulin, the resulting insulin resistance leads to the condition that we know as Type 2 diabetes.
Adding more leptin to your body just makes matters worse. Extra leptin will not overcome leptin resistance. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. (This might make you wonder, for good reason, why taking insulin when you are insulin resistant is based on flawed thinking in modern medicine. Ultimately this is a downward spiral that leads to failure of your pancreas to make any more insulin at all, which is big time trouble.)
First Step: Recover Leptin Sensitivity
How do you know if you are leptin resistant? The easiest self-test is to look in the mirror. If you see a fat person looking back at you, then you are definitely leptin resistant.
Other signs of leptin resistance, even if you are not fat, are:
- Large appetite
- Carb cravings, especially at night
- Elevated blood test levels of reverse T3 (a thyroid hormone)
- Elevated salivary test levels of cortisol later in the day
Two of the absolutely best sources of advice on how to re-establish leptin sensitivity come from the blog by Dr. Jack Kruse.
The first is an overview, here: Leptin Reset Easy Start Guide
The second offers additional details, here: My Leptin Prescription
Go ahead and dig into them. You can call this an old-fashioned reading assignment from me. In this case, though, the teacher isn’t going to give you a test over it. Instead, the much more important ‘test’ is how well you can follow Dr. Kruse’s advice for improving your health.
By the way, Dr. Kruse has written extensively about leptin. You will notice that both of the pages linked above provide numerous additional links to his commentary on leptin. Even thought it may seem overwhelming, his commentary is all very worthwhile. Read as much of it as you can.
Now Back to Food
The subject of food really has three main components:
- When you eat
- What you eat
- How much you eat
The best possible eating style for getting lean and maintaining or building muscle mass relies on when you eat. This means proper meal spacing.
The simplest pattern for optimal results is keeping meals a minimum of 4-5 hours apart, having dinner before 7:00 PM, keeping about 12 hours between dinner and breakfast the next day. And no snacking in between meals or after dinner. EVER!
As you age, this pattern becomes more and more critical. In addition, the older you get the more important it becomes to skip eating entirely for a full day, about 24 hours or so, two or three times each week. This is referred to as Intermittent Fasting (IF).
Proper meal spacing, including Intermittent Fasting, is one of the main pillars of healthy metabolism that I explain in my book, Fat Loss Biology: The Science Behind Why We Get Fat and How to Lose It (click on link for further details about this ebook).
SUMMARY: When you eat is more important than what or how much you eat.
If you just focus on the three food groups – carbohydrates, protein, and fat – you might be surprised to find out that we have minimum requirements for only two of them: protein and fat.
There is no such thing as a carbohydrate deficiency.
However, if you eat too little good protein, your health will suffer. Your muscles will atrophy. You will feel weak and miserable.
Likewise, if you don’t eat enough good fat, then every cell in your body will go haywire. Fats are the most important source of cellular energy that you can eat, not carbohydrates.
What I am advocating here may seem like the popular Paleo Diet, which it is, at least partly. In reality, the Paleo Diet is just a start. Modifying it to capitalize on human evolutionary biology requires some changes, though. These changes are the topic of this blog post by Dr. Kruse: Brain Gut 6: Epi-Paleo Rx. He calls this approach the Epi-Paleo Rx.
In short, the most appropriate WHAT of eating is what Dr. Kruse refers to as the protein/fat pyramid of the Epi-Paleo Rx. It is as follows, in order of importance:
- A base of shellfish (oysters) other than crustaceans: Provides the most nutrient density of any food source for optimal functioning of the human brain
- The second level of the Pyramid: Crustaceans
- The third level of the pyramid: Fish
- The fourth level of the pyramid: Offal/organ meat of pastured/grassfed animals. This is where micronutrient density is greatest in meats but not seafood!
- The fifth level of the pyramid is where ‘modern day paleo’ begins its pyramid base at our 4th level: grass fed skeletal meats
- Pastured eggs if there are no medical contraindications of inflammation like an autoimmune disorder
- Seeds and nuts, shading to omega-3 nuts (e.g., walnuts) is fine but this becomes important if there is a serious omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acid imbalance. (You can almost count on this imbalance with a Standard American Diet. Direct testing of your levels will help you determine how far the imbalance goes.)
SUMMARY: You have to eat plenty of the right proteins and fats, with very little carbohydrate.
HOW MUCH – THE FIRST MONSTER SURPRISE
Let me cite a couple of concepts that I explain in my Fat Loss Biology ebook:
First, the “calories in/calories out” dietary advice that seems to be on everyone’s lips has become dogma of mythical proportions. This advice is not only wrong, it is utterly ridiculous.
Secondly, you do not get fat because you overeat. You overeat because you are getting fat. Science has got the cause-and-effect relationship exactly backward.
SUMMARY: How much you eat is irrelevant when you first take care the WHEN and WHAT you eat.
By the way, the complete idiocy of counting calories finally drove me to write a short ebook on the topic. It is titled, Calorie Counting Madness: Surprising Truths About Weight Loss.
Since you have been so patient in reading this article so far, I made my little ebook available at no charge to you at that link. Of course, if you are a really big spender, you can buy the Kindle edition for 99 cents on Amazon here.
Now Back to Building Muscle
This post is supposedly about building muscle as you age. As you can see, though, a lot of other things have to be in place before you can do any good at all for your muscle mass. Leptin sensitivity is a cornerstone of immense importance.
THE SECOND MONSTER SURPRISE
Food does have a role. However…
In fact, it may only be the third or fourth most important factor that your muscle mass and overall health depend on.
To understand why this is the case, and what to do about it, we would have to descend from my usual explanations at the level of biochemistry, to the much deeper level of biophysics.
I am sure that you are absolutely thrilled with this possibility. Right?
I didn’t think so.
Instead, I am going to refer you to an earlier post where I talk about those little powerhouses of the cell called mitochondria. These are the little guys (and gals) that do all the work of harvesting energy and sending it off to wherever it is needed – such as in building muscle.
The post I refer to is: Live Long And Prosper With Healthy Mitochondria.
Mitochondria are in all of our living cells except red blood cells. Striated muscle cells (i.e., the ones you you want to build in biceps, abs, etc.) may each contain thousands of them.
Building striated muscles will simply not happen without lots of high-functioning mitochondria.
Being kind to your mitochondria is not only a muscle-building strategy, it is also an anti-aging strategy.
Some of the pointers that I have for you in that prior post on mitochondria include advice about foods. That advice corresponds to what Dr. Kruse provides in his leptin articles that I linked earlier.
As you can see, eating right is a small part of what you have to do for maintaining or building muscle mass as you age.
I know that was a lot of information. Just take it in when you can. Keep plugging away. And most of all, enjoy your new found health as you adopt the lifestyle that will keep you healthy and youthful for many, many years.
All the best in natural health,
hi dr. d,
i have a question for you on this topic of the optimal diet. for 4-5 months i ate a diet pretty much like the one described above, with seafood and organ meats in the top, and almost no carbs (i aimed for 20 net carbs a day). i went this route for a couple of reasons: i’d been having digestive problems and cutting carbs alleviated them; and since i was doing so, i decided to go ketogenic since i’d heard so much good stuff about it (i’m prediabetic, had been low-carb for years). i’d also read the wahls protocol, where she emphasizes the importance of seafood and organ meats in terms of nutrient density, for healing from chronic illnesses (i have CFS). also, i did intermittent fasting (12-16 hours) and aimed for 2 meals a day.
initially, i felt GREAT on this diet. less inflammation, great energy, etc. i was having sleep problems, but i read that it’d pass so i kept going. the thing is, 4-5 months in, i was still having the sleep problems (waking up 4-5 hours after going to sleep with a racing heart, dry mouth) — as well as others: wounds not healing; i was much more irritable in general; despite losing weight, my belly fat did not budge — i didn’t lose even 1 inch around my waist; my nails started getting weak and ripping; and most worryingly, my period stopped.
after doing a ton of digging — and i mean a ton, because it’s hard to find people discussing possible problems with very low carb diets without advocating the other extreme of high-carb veganism — i learned that i was most likely experiencing symptoms of 1) high cortisol (since when we are not eating carbs, our adrenals secrete cortisol to get our livers to create glucose), and 2) low thyroid (as our thyroid needs a certain amount of carbs to function properly) — which can affect women especially, because low thyroid function negatively impacts our body’s production of our sex hormones. so, i (reluctantly! as a prediabetic with digestive issues from carbs, sigh) began adding carbs back into my diet. after a few weeks, i did notice an improvement in my symptoms. most notably, my period came back.
i’m posting all of this here because i’m an avid reader of your website and think you are a wise voice in the realms of health and nutrition. i’d love to know your thoughts on this. i am the first person to recognize that too much carbs are a HUGE problems in the US diet. i’ve been low carb at this point for almost 15 years, and have loved eating that way. but i’m reluctantly having to accept that my body does need some amount of carbohydrates for proper hormone functioning. have you found this with your patients, particularly female patients? are there just some people (some women included) who can handle a very low carb diet, and others who can’t? thanks in advance for your reply.
Dr. Dennis Clark says
First off, thank you for your kind words.
Your story is fairly common. The low carb approach has its limits, which you have discovered. The problem is not with eating patterns (food groups, quantities, timing [esp. regarding IF]). Peeling back the onion to find the deepest potential causality for your health challenges points to one huge issue: your sleep. This may not be a surprise to you. Its magnitude may, however, be a surprise. Good sleep is the foundation for everything you want to accomplish. I suspect that you are living a circadian mismatch – i.e., non-adaptive 24-hour light cycle. The best ‘flashlight’ that I have found shining a light on this and related issues is Dr. Jack Kruse. You can easily get overwhelmed with his information. Nevertheless, a good start for input for you might be: https://www.jackkruse.com/energy-epigenetics-9-quantum-sleep/. His forum also has several threads (found by Googling jackkruse and sleep together). For example: https://forum.jackkruse.com/index.php?threads/help-me-to-optimize-sleep-sleep-tips.10763/. Although diet has its place, it is no better than 3rd on the list of what you need for optimal health. If anything, I would just re-emphasize the importance of getting plenty of whole food, DHA-laden oily fish and nutrient-dense oysters. You have already done so much for yourself, think about your experiences so far as setting you up for the road to optimal health. It has been a continuing journey for me, as it will be for you. You clearly have the willpower to succeed. Now you just need to find the right choices and make them. Start with Kruse and see where it takes you. I will be very happy to provide my insights along the way. Keep in touch.
All the best,