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Sarcopenic Obesity - What it is and How you can avoid it

Avoid Sarcopenic Obesity

Being healthy isn’t only about a number on the scale nor is it about falling into a certain range on a “healthy weight” chart. What you are on the inside – fat or fit – is much more important than the outward view.


Perhaps you have heard the term “Skinny Fat” to describe someone that researchers refer to as TOFI – Thin Outside, Fat Inside. These are folks who may look great in that little black dress or form-fitting pair of jeans, but they are just not healthy inside. They carry too much fat around their organs and have very little muscular strength.

Sarcopenia is the clinical term for loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging. But there is a new set of people out there who are losing muscle while simultaneously gaining fat tissue. Sarcopenic obesity is now becoming a huge problem in many countries and is the result of an overfed, sedentary population.

The increase in sarcopenic obesity is much more of an issue than just having a few extra pounds. SO is a risk factor for chronic disease which not only shorten lifespan, but also compromise quality of life as we age. People with sarcopenia have a higher risk of frailty, disability, and of course morbidity and mortality.

The latest fad diet won’t fix this problem. Having excess visceral fat – the kind that surrounds the organs and increases risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome – is the result of both eating too many empty calories and not getting enough daily physical activity.

Consider this – crash diets work in the short term first by depleting the body of excess fluid. Then, in the absence of adequate muscle-retaining nutrients, we lose tissue – both muscle and fat. The result may look good as the scale goes down, but internally, we have not done anything to improve our risk of disease and improve our chance of healthy aging.

How do we reverse sarcopenic obesity and become a healthier person?

First, it takes cleaning up the diet. Junk foods – refined carbohydrates, processed foods, added sugars and the like – are called “nutrient poor”. They provide us with calories, but very little else that our bodies need to maintain and repair.

On the other hand, frequent intake of whole plant based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are associated with both less incidence of sarcopenia (muscle wasting) and with less functional disability.

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Phytochemicals within these foods are likely providing the benefits. Resveratrol, for example, found in red grapes, is associated with decreasing the size of adipocytes (fat cells). Isoflavones are shown to both decrease abdominal fat and increase fat free mass (muscle, bone, blood).

So what about protein? It is a critical component of a healthy diet as it is needed to build tissue. To reverse sarcopenia, ensuring a daily intake of about 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is suggested. To calculate, take your weight in pounds, divide by 2.2 and that will give you the approximate amount of protein you need in a day.

Keep in mind that this may not be as much as you think. A 200-pound person needs about 90 grams per day. For perspective, a three-ounce portion of beef (about the size of the palm of your hand) provides 22 grams. So, no need to purchase protein powders or supplements. And no need to pound down a half of a cow at each meal. Keep portion sizes reasonable, but focus on quality sources.

And yes, plant foods DO contain protein. Vegetarians can easily meet their protein needs as long as they plan for a healthy, balanced diet.

Some research has suggested protein-pacing as a way to help improve muscle protein synthesis. It may also promote satiety, so you aren’t hungry all the time and craving those junk foods. The goal would be to get about 25-30 grams of protein per meal at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Any diet program that does not promote physical activity is not interested in your overall health. Exercise is absolutely critical to reverse sarcopenia. Physical activity not only burns fat storage; it can help improve muscle mass and strength. It also helps improve other conditions of aging, such as maintenance of cognitive function and preventing injuries and falls.

Remember as well that daily exercise should be a combination of cardio and strength training. Running/walking/biking are great for cardiovascular fitness and fat burn. But you also should look into strength training to build metabolically active muscle – which continues to burn energy even while you are at rest.

If you are overweight or obese and have been sedentary for some time, or you have a chronic disease state such as cardiovascular disease, check with your doctor on where to start with exercise. Start slow and build up endurance. Water aerobics, yoga, walking are all lower-impact exercises which can be adapted to individualized needs.

Journal Reference:
Andrew Shao et al. The emerging global phenomenon of sarcopenic obesity: Role of functional foods; a conference report. Journal of Functional Foods 33 (2017) 244-250

Photo Credit:
By Spmallare (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons