Health: Does metabolism actually decline with age?


A college kid can eat an entire family-sized box of pizza pockets and not gain an ounce, but if his parents so much as sniff a french fry, they won’t fit their jeans for a week. 

Do you relate? Ahh, to have the metabolism of a 20-year-old again!

Many of us hold the notion that once we turn 30, our metabolism starts a steady fall. But a new study that appeared in the August 2021 issue of Science found a slightly different pattern. In fact, the average metabolism didn’t change at all between the ages of 20 and 60. Let’s look at what metabolism is, what recent research tells us about metabolism and how to reach a healthy weight no matter how fast or slow your metabolism is working.

What is metabolism, really?

The Mayo Clinic explains, “Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function.”

Everyone needs energy for the basic functions of life: “breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells.” But we also need energy for things that vary based on our choices, like digesting the food we eat and doing physical activity.

“It may be tempting to blame your metabolism for weight gain,” said Mayo Clinic. “But because metabolism is a natural process, your body has many mechanisms that regulate it to meet your individual needs. … Some people who are said to have a fast metabolism are probably just more active — and maybe fidget more — than others.”

Now that we’ve covered the basics of metabolism, let’s take a closer look at what more recent research adds to this.

What to learn from recent research on metabolism

The August 2021 study that appeared in Science magazine found that the average metabolic rate changes as we age like this:  

  • Birth to age one: Increases until it is about 50% higher than it will be during adulthood
  • Ages one to 20: Decreases by almost 3% each year
  • Ages 20 to 60: Stays constant
  • Age 60 and beyond: Decreases by 0.7% annually

“These data suggest that the ‘middle age spread’ that we all know about anecdotally or personally is not due to a change in intrinsic metabolism as had been long thought,” said Rozalyn Anderson, PhD, professor at the school of medicine and public health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “It is far more likely now that changes in behavior are at the root of it.”

This finding is great news! It means that maintaining a healthy weight as you age may be more attainable than you thought. 

“We do tend to move less as we age, and that can lead to us putting on weight more easily,” said Amy Santo, administrator at Vista Manor Nursing Center, a skilled nursing facility in San Jose. “But it’s never too late to find a new exercise you enjoy and some healthy, tasty recipes to add to your weekly menu.”

How to maintain a health weight no matter the speed of your metabolism

Whether you are 18 or 80, you can have a healthy and happy relationship with food (and maintain or reach a healthy weight while you’re at it!). Here are some tips from Nicole Hopsecger, RD:

  1. Eat foods that help you stay full. This includes high-protein and high-fiber foods. Think eggs or Greek yogurt mixed with chia seeds and berries.
  2. Avoid carbohydrates that don’t also have fiber. Lentils, sweet potatoes and apples are great sources of both carbs and fiber.
  3. Focus on healthy behaviors, not the number on the scale. What can you control, right here and now? Instead of a goal to lose a pound a week, try goals like walking a mile five days a week or eating a serving of vegetables with every meal.
  4. Make plants the foundation of your diet. Plants have vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, not to mention fiber and water, which help you feel full.
  5. Don’t tell yourself certain foods are “good,” “bad” or “off-limits.” Instead, strive to eat appropriate portions of healthy foods 80-90% of the time. This goal is much more realistic and sustainable than never letting yourself eat pizza or ice cream.
  6. Plan your meals ahead of time so that you aren’t tempted to munch on the first thing you see. Simply knowing what you plan to eat and doing some prep ahead of time, like chopping vegetables the night before, can help you stay motivated to follow through on your healthy eating goals.

You can read more tips for maintaining or reaching a healthy weight at

Health is a lifelong journey, so no matter your age, activity level or current health challenges, there is always something you can do to get a little closer to your goals. Remember that metabolism varies based on factors like lifestyle choices, and it stays pretty constant from ages 20 to 60. Celebrate the small victories and keep doing those things that make you happy and healthy, no matter how fast your metabolism is going.

A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.


About Author

I am the Founder of Stage Marketing and specialize in healthcare marketing. My doctorate is in communication, which means that I draw from the areas of psychology, sociology, and the humanities to understand the emotional and spiritual side of health.

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