A low-cal diet seems key to keeping muscle tone as we age

April 30, 2002 in Nutrition for Older Adults

A low-cal diet seems key to keeping muscle tone as we age

Studies in some very old--but surprisingly toned--rats suggest the key to lifelong muscle health is to eat less, and better. With age there is quite a significant loss of muscle function. But dietary caloric restriction basically prevented that loss, so much so that the function of these very old animals is the same as the function of the young animals.

Most people view a gradual decline in muscle strength and tone as an inevitable part of aging. And, under typical dietary and exercise conditions, that's probably the case. With aging, muscle loses fiber number, especially the fibers needed for quick, strength-dependent responses. It's thought that nerve fibers attach to these fibers die or recede with age.

Oxidative stress (damage from "free radicals" molecules) is a main culprit in this process. Calorie restriction not only reduces the production of free radicals in the body, but it also seems to have a beneficial effect on natural antioxidant enzymes that help prevent the damage.

Florida researchers tested the muscle responsiveness of rats fed either an unrestricted diet, or a diet with 40% fewer daily calories. As expected, rats free to eat at will had relatively flabby muscles by the time they reached the ripe old age of 26 months--about the equivalent of a 75- to 80-year-old human. In contrast, geriatric rats accustomed to the restricted-calorie diet were smaller, leaner, and decidedly buffer.

But what about in humans? According to the scientists, it's probably more practical to embark on a calorie-restricted diet in middle age rather than in youth. It's probably a lot more feasible to cut back on calories once you get to the age when you

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