Strategies to improve your body composition – without freezing your arse off

On a recent trip to Beirut I saw billboards posted all around the city with a picture of a scantily clad lady with a slogan underneath reading – “freeze away your fat”. My heart sank. All those years studying dietetics and advising people on strategies to lose weight had been wasted – all they had to do was stick some ice on their arse and hey presto!

Before this novel, ground breaking strategy for weight loss really takes off, I thought I would share some evidence-based dietary strategies that I have found can help people improve their body composition.

The article will focus on what has been coined “quality weight loss”1 i.e. that which promotes loss of fat mass, while minimizing loss of lean mass, a large proportion of which is skeletal muscle. Loss of lean body mass will not only compromise functional capacity and physical performance, but will in effect reduce your baseline energy requirements1, making it harder to maintain any weight loss achieved.

A quick note on the other side of the equation. While not covered in this article, it’s well known that a combination of a well-structured aerobic and resistance exercise program, incorporating principles of progressive overload, (Note: this hyperlink focuses on strength training, but the same principle applies to other types of training) will lead to better health outcomes and body composition changes than diet alone. Further, it’s known that energy restricted diets designed to promote weight loss, in the absence of a resistance exercise program, will lead to proportionally higher loss of lean mass2, which as discussed above, is counter-productive. Now, back to talking about something that is more my area.😁

Step 1:Reduce the energy density of your diet

To promote a reduction in fat mass, you must consume fewer calories than you need, either by manipulating training load to increase energy expenditure and/or reduce the energy density of your diet. As Table 1 highlights, the most effective means of decreasing the energy density of the diet is by reducing intake of both fats and alcohol, the two most energy dense nutrients.

Table 1: Energy density of the different macronutrients

Macronutrient

Energy density (kJ/g)

Carbohydrate

17

Protein

17

Alcohol

29

Fat

37

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atwater_system

Along with highly processed/refined carbohydrate rich foods e.g. most breakfast cereals, soft drink/juice, sliced white bread, poor quality fats and alcohol represent what have been coined “empty” calories i.e. foods that provide an abundance of energy and little in the way of nutrients that the body needs. At the risk of stating the obvious, reduced intake of empty calories can be achieved either by limiting how often you have them and/or by reducing portion size when you do. Unfortunately, examples of foods providing empty calories are almost infinite and are often those most highly promoted and easier to access than those we should be eating more of, which leads me to Step 2….

Step 2: Increase intake of nutrient dense, low energy foods

This is really just dietitian speak to encourage you to increase intake of fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables. The real value of fruits and especially non-starchy vegetables is that they provide a lot of essential vitamins and minerals that we need but little in the way of energy. Therefore, eating more allows you to achieve your vitamin and mineral targets at a lower energy cost, and almost by definition, reduce the portion of other energy dense foods that you may consume at a meal…in theory anyway!

agriculture basket beets bokeh

Step 3: Fibre it up

Aside from the many health benefits associated with fibre, choosing fibre rich foods will generally provide you with a greater level of satiety (feeling of fullness) than lower fibre/more processed options, thereby reducing the drive to eat more3. Relevant examples include choosing grain Vs white bread, choosing oats Vs a highly processed breakfast cereal and replacing animal sources of protein with legumes such as kidney beans and chickpeas.

red strawberry and raspberry on white ceramic bowl
Rolled oats, served as either porridge or muesli, are a great way to boost your fibre intake

Step 4: Get the protein right.

Protein plays a key role in promoting a reduction in fat mass for a number of reasons:

  • It promotes a greater level of satiety than both carbohydrate (especially highly processed, low fibre options) and fat rich food, reducing the drive to eat more4
  • It promotes maintenance/gain in lean muscle mass, especially important when in negative energy balance1; and
  • The energy cost associated with digesting and absorbing protein is greater than it is for both (especially refined) carbohydrate and fat

From both a training adaptation and body composition perspective, you should target 1.6-2.3g/kg body mass of protein/day, evenly over the day (~every 3 to 5 hours)1, with the biggest “hits” after your main training session and 60-90 minutes before going to bed. For a 70kg person, this translates into a total of 112g – 168g of protein or 28 – 42 g per meal, assuming four eating occasions over the day.

While it is easier to achieve the “ideal” protein target from animal sources, this is not an excuse to exclude plant-based protein rich foods from your diet. Clever combinations of vegetable sources will not only provide a full complement of essential amino acids e.g. lentils with rice, peanut butter on grain bread, they will also provide a range of other important nutrients, including fibre.

Regardless of the protein source, it’s important to think about what is keeping your protein company! Specifically, I refer to the amount of fat in the protein source, how and in what it was cooked, as well as what is served on the side. For example, a grilled chicken breast served with veggies and baked potato will provide a more nutrient and less energy dense meal than the same chicken breast that has been deep fried in oil, served with fries and washed down with a glass of wine!

IMG_7911
Lentils (as featured here in one of the many meals of Dal Bhat I had in Nepal) and other legumes provide a great source of fibre, as well as a valuable source of protein

Take it one step at a time.

It’s important that you do not try to change all of your existing dietary habits at once. I generally encourage clients to work on one behavior/strategy e.g. reduce intake of sugar sweetened beverages, master it until becomes a habit, then move onto the next strategy e.g. have 3-4 “hits” of protein over the day.

Patience is a virtue

Rapid weight loss will generally promote a relatively greater amount of lean muscle mass, which will not only compromise training performance, but as discussed previously, make it harder for you to maintain any weight loss achieved. Having unrealistic expectations about the pace at which changes in body composition will occur with changes in diet and exercise habits can act as a major barrier to sustainable change. One cannot simply expect 3-4 weeks of positive change will undo the impact that years of poor habits have had on your body composition. Real change can be frustratingly slow and painful, but ultimately worth it.

Conclusion

This article has outlined some key “ingredients” to help improve body composition and hopefully health and exercise performance. Like most things in life, changing dietary habits and behaviors is a lot easier said than done, especially given that we live in a world that promotes consumption of foods and behaviors not well aligned with those outlined above. That said, provided that you follow a sensible training program and follow these suggestions most of the time, attaining their desired body composition is more than achievable. If all this sounds a little too much like hard work, you can just take the ice out of the freezer.😉

References

  1. Hector A., Phillips S.M. (2018). Protein Recommendations for Weight Loss in Elite Athletes: A Focus on Body Composition and Performance, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, Mar 1;28(2):170-177.doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0273. Epub Feb 19.
  2. Parr E. B., Coffey V. G., Cato L. E., Phillips, S. M., Burke, L. M., & Hawley, J. A. (2016). A randomized trial of high-dairy-protein, variable-carbohydrate diets and exercise on body composition in adults with obesity. Obesity24(5), 1035 – 1045 https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21451
  3. Wanders A.J., van den Borne J.J., de Graaf C., Hulshof T., Jonathan M.C., Kristensen M., Mars M., Schols H.A., Feskens E.J. (2011) Effects of dietary fibre on subjective appetite, energy intake and body weight: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials, Obes Rev. Sep;12(9):724-39. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00895.x. Epub Jun 16.
  4. Holt S.H., Miller J.C., Petocz P., Farmakalidis E. (1995) A satiety index of common foods, Eur J Clin Nutr, Sep;49(9):675-90.
  5. Sutton E.F., Bray G.A., Burton J.H., Smith S.R. and Redman L.M. (2016) No evidence for metabolic adaptation in thermic effect of food by dietary protein, Obesity, Aug;24(8):1639-42. doi: 10.1002/oby.21541. Epub Jun 29.

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