Building lean muscle mass and reducing excess body fat is one of the best ways to improve overall health, wellbeing and performance.
How to measure body composition
How your clothes fit
A piece of clothing you own that doesn't currently fit (at the moment) is one way to measure progress over the weeks, as is just looking in the mirror! Taking measurements of waist, legs, arms and abdomen can also serve as indicators of progress.
Waist to height ratio. Measuring your waist circumference (in cm) and dividing by your height (in cm) is one of the best tools to determine health risk from body composition. A waist:height ratio of 0.5 or below is desirable.
Tool. Waist: Height calculator tool click here.
While the scales aren’t the best indicator for health, they can be useful to help track the trend in your body weight over time. Those most successful at losing weight and keeping it off actually use the scales more often, with daily weighing being one of the predictors for weight loss maintenance.
If you are using scales, aiming to lose an average of 0.5-1% of your body weight each week is a rate that will minimise fat loss and retain muscle. For example, if you weigh 80kg, aim for 400-800g weight loss each week.
Strategies to achieve weight-loss
If you are wanting to improve your body composition, it can feel like there are any number of plans out there to help you do it - paleo, low carbohydrate high fat, vegan, keto, time restricted eating, etc. These all work in the same way, despite their differences. They allow people to feel satisfied on eating fewer calories, thereby creating a deficit in energy that will help someone lose body fat. There is no ‘one best’ way, in fact, research shows the best plan is the one that you can stick to. Although the “Calories in:Calories out” model is flawed in parts (i.e. 100 calories of potato chips is not the same as 100 calories of broccoli, in terms of its impact on the body), a diet that consistently helps you achieve a calorie deficit will help you lose weight.
While it can be tempting to choose a plan that allows for quick weight loss, there are two potential pitfalls:
- A very low calorie intake results in accelerated muscle loss.
- If the approach is unsustainable or unrealistic, excessive hunger or feelings of deprivation can result in overeating or bingeing.
A weight loss target of around 1% per week of body weight is recommended, to allow for a sustained drop in body fat via methods that are sustainable. It takes time to gain weight, and therefore we should allow enough time to lose weight too. Fat loss isn’t linear and while some may like a continuous calorie deficit, others may benefit from spending periods of time in a calorie deficit, then lifting calories up slightly to be at maintenance calories as your body adjusts to a new set point. Again, there is no best way to achieve your desired fat loss. If you prefer to keep your food intake constant, with continuous restriction, and that fits best into your lifestyle, then that is fine. However, if you feel the need for a break in the diet, you could (after a set period of say three weeks) spend a week at a higher calorie intake.
Tip. You may benefit from using an app, for example Ketogains to help support your nutrition planning.
Though it may take a little longer to achieve your overall fat loss goal, the psychological benefit of lifting calories up slightly (and the potential benefit on appetite hormones) makes the diet break scenario more attractive for some people. An added benefit of the diet break option is that the lift in calories is an opportunity to practice eating at ‘maintenance’ calories – something that doesn’t happen that often for people who are either ‘on a diet’ or ‘off a diet’.
Three simple ways to improve body composition
1. Food journal
Use a spreadsheet or a journal to keep track of your food for a week. Write down what you currently eat, then see where you can make adjustments based on the information provided in Fuelling the Force.
Write down everything that you eat and drink and when you eat it and be completely honest! This is a great way to become aware of your dietary patterns, habits and behaviours that you might not usually pay attention to.
After a week, look back and then make some adjustments. This may include:
- Adding more protein to your breakfast and lunch meals. Protein is the most satisfying of all nutrients and it takes the longest (and the most energy) to digest. Breakfast and lunch are often lower in protein than dinner, and there is usually a window of opportunity to increase it at the earlier meals.
- Shorten your eating window to 10-12 hours.
- Swap out the sandwiches at lunch for a salad.
- Remove the afternoon snack.
- Reduce the proportion of carbohydrate on your plate to no more than 25%.
- Make dinner your last eating opportunity – brushing your teeth will reduce your desire to eat something else.
Continue to keep a food diary as you embed these changes, making 1-2 changes every couple of weeks. In around 12 weeks time, your diet will look quite different to what it looked like at the start.
These may seem like minor changes but small shifts in diet and behaviour, in combination with increased awareness of these, can lead to lasting, sustainable changes in body composition.
2. Focus on an approach that changes your food choices
A food forward approach for body recomposition doesn’t require counting calories; instead, the focus is on including certain types of foods across the day that help keep you satisfied and help recover from any physical training (PT) that you do during the day.
- Focus on protein as the mainstay of every meal – eggs, cottage cheese, fish, red meat, chicken, aiming for the amounts laid out in the Fuelling the Force section.
- Monitor your fat additions to each meal. Those who are more active would incorporate at the higher end of the range 1-3 serves of fat to each meal, whereas those who are more sedentary (or who have more body fat to lose) may choose to eat at the lower end of the range. Dietary fat is a natural part of protein-based foods, so the addition of fat isn’t typically recommended when we want to encourage the body to use its own stores to improve body composition. For fattier cuts of protein, you may benefit from having just one additional serve of dietary fat here.
- Fill over half your plate with non-starchy vegetables.
- Add one or two fist-sized amounts of carbohydrates after a PT session, depending on the length and the activity. An activity that is longer and/or more intense may benefit from the upper end of this recommendation, whereas an easy, lower intensity activity may benefit from the lower end.
3. Track total calories with a food app
Focus on tracking overall and protein calories, ensuring you get an even distribution of protein across the day in your meals. You can use an app such as Easy Diet Diary, My Fitness Pal etc. Have a read of this article on online calculators to help you decide which app may be best for you, or reach out your nearest PTI and discuss with them.
Tips. Ideally eat your protein distributed across 3-4 eating opportunities in the day, with a minimum of 30g at each of these. For example, if your protein requirement is 160g, you could have 40g at four different meal times. Use the food guidelines as laid out in Fuelling the Force to build your food choices to make up the remaining fat and carbohydrate calories, opting to have your carbohydrates around your PT training to allow for optimal recovery.