Often, when someone is starting out in the gym or beginning a new training programme, their first port of call will be to reduce total body fat percentage, whilst maintaining or increasing a high level of lean muscle mass. Rather than being determined at reducing weight, the main aim here would be to improve overall body composition (fat to lean mass ratio).
Besides the enhanced appearance and ’feel better’ factor that having an improved body composition brings about, attaining a lower percent of body fat and higher lean muscle mass is also essential to performance. This could be performing your day to day activities or performing better in whatever exercise you are carrying out. Lean muscle mass is beneficial for many things, not only is it linked with a higher production of force, but a higher lean mass percentage will also increase your resting metabolic rate – think of muscle as a furnace for burning calories. On the contrary to this, fat does not generate force, and having too much excess body fat can in fact be an indication of many negative health indices.
Where to start… Firstly, always remember that there is never a perfect quick-fix solution to losing body fat. Instead, it is important to realise that in order to achieve and maintain long term fat loss you must be prepared to make sustainable lifestyle changes. Fundamentally, these changes should comprise of improved dietary intake and reduced energy intake, coupled with increased physical activity (greater energy expenditure) – after all, lower calorie intake to calories expended equals likely weight loss.
Nutrition for fat loss.
To some surprise, rather than physically getting up and carrying out exercise, it is nutrition that can often be someone’s biggest challenge when setting out to improve body composition. While we are faced with hundreds of new diet crazes, and understanding which is best is often difficult, we should look to avoid these and instead opt for high-quality, nutritious wholefoods which pack a host of vitamins and minerals.
So how much and why?
With the increased exercise and workload comes increased muscle breakdown, and therefore protein intake is an essential part to any beginner’s diet. Lean animal proteins (such as red meat, poultry and fish) are the perfect choices, as they contain the key amino acids to support recovery. Other plant based foods such as lentils, beans and pulses are also great for bumping up your daily protein intake.
For anyone looking to reduce body fat, it can often be recommended to increase protein intake to around 1.5-2g per kg of body weight per day (for example, a 60kg individual will be looking to consume anything from 90-120g of protein per day). As well as increasing recovery from the exercise stimuli, a higher protein intake will also increase feeling of satiety, particularly in comparison to high GI (Glycemic Index) carbohydrates. A simple way for achieving this higher protein intake would be to consume 20-30g of protein every 3-4 hours a day, bracketing a further 20g around training.
It is important to remember that there are many different types of carbohydrates, each having a different effect on your metabolism i.e. 1g of dextrose would metabolise differently to 1g of fructose. The most important thing to bear in mind with carbohydrate intake and fat loss, is the timing, type and total. If training intensity is low, it could always be recommended to consume a lower carbohydrate intake across the day (typically 200-300g is classed as ‘low’), this should come from low GI, nutrient dense carbohydrates (such as fruit, vegetables and leafy greens). Where possible, you should try to avoid these in the evening where energy expenditure is lower – of course this depends on the type of training though.
Further reading >> The 3 T’s of Nutrition for Losing Body Fat.
Despite the common misconception, fat intake is important for fat loss, and in some circumstances, fat can enhance the body’s ability to burn calories. A good example of this is coconut oil – the high percentage of Medium Chain Triglycerides can help the body to start burning fat. It can be recommended to increase fat intake to around 0.8-1g daily, per kg body weight. This should come from a combination of saturated (dairy, butter, coconut oil), monounsaturated (range of nuts) and polyunsaturated fats (omega 3 and 6). A lot of foods will contain a good balance of different types of fats, take the yolk of an egg as a good example, this provides both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, as well as a range of vitamins and minerals.
Like most things in life, we could do with a little help along the way, and this is often the same for nutrition. Supplements can be useful for helping avoid certain deficiencies, supporting overall health and wellbeing or increasing nutrient intake. Whey protein is a good example here; as mentioned, it is fundamental to increase protein intake in order to reduce body fat and improve body composition. Often increasing your protein intake can be a challenge though and getting an additional 20-30g through a whey protein shake (or other alternative such as soy or milk), can be an effective way of reaching your dietary goals.
Further reading >> Top 5 Proven Supplements.
Physical Activity for fat loss.
Up until a few years ago, it was believed that the only way to lose weight was to carry out steady state endurance based work at around 60% of maximum heart rate. This was understood to be the optimal intensity to ‘burn’ fat. We have come a long way since then, and instead, it is now promoted to carry out a range of different training to reduce body fat and improve muscle. The secrets to ensuring your exercise regime lasts and you stay motivated all year round, is to make it fun and add variety.
High-intensity interval training. Keep it short and sharp from time to time – high-intensity or interval sessions are often overlooked but they are one of the most effective ways to burn fat without taking up too much of your time. There are so many ways to carry this out – circuit training, sprint sessions, spin classes, the list goes on.
Resistance based training. Weights are also good for helping you to slim down. As mentioned, adding lean mass increases resting metabolic rate which will burn more calories. Having bigger glutes, hamstrings or quadriceps will improve metabolic rate and be a furnace for burning calories.
Steady state fasted. If you have more time on your hands, occasionally a light run or cycle could be beneficial for fat loss. The best way to ensure you are maximising fat burning would be to train in a fasted or low carb state. Here the intensity isn’t as high so you can afford to reduce the carbs beforehand. Afterwards, make sure you are consuming protein to support muscle recovery – this will also not blunt the fat burning effect.
So, when it comes to improving body composition it is important to remember that there isn’t such a thing as a short term solution. Here are a few key principles to work off to help you along the way.
- Don’t go it alone – try to find a partner to train with and support you through the ‘journey’, helping to keep you motivated and encouraged throughout – this is particularly important at the beginning.
- Don’t be tempted by the latest fitness or diet fad – focus on sustainable changes which will bring about long term lifestyle changes.
- Don’t stick to the same routine – exercise should be something that you enjoy doing. If you get fed up of the same exercises then mix it up. Sports can also be a great way of exercising without it being an arduous task.
- Don’t rely on scales – weighing less and being healthier are two completely different things. Instead of looking at weight and BMI (which are pretty poor indicators of health), we should instead look at overall body composition and fitness. After all, you can lose weight and be miserable and unhealthy, but you can keep similar weight but look and feel great!
Steve has a Masters degree in Sports Physiology and works within the BULK POWDERS™ product team. His role includes all aspects of new product development, from recipe concept and formulation, to website content and legislations.