Diet and body composition: 11 key take home points

The International Society of Sports Nutrition just released a position stand that reviewed the literature available regarding diet and body composition. You can read it here.  For those who want it broken down into more simple terms, I’ve distilled it somewhat into 11 key take home points. While much of this draws on literature from strength and power athletes, it is definitely applicable to the general audience too, given that resistance-based training is one of the best things you can do to support your health and body composition goals.

  1. There is a vast multitude of diets and within these, several subtypes of diet. Low fat, low carb, higher protein, Mediterranean, low calorie… and these will all work work to reduce body fat given the right conditions. As a practitioner, we need to be familiar of the evidence supporting each diet type to make informed recommendations to the people we interact with, both at an individual and population level. As someone who is interested in losing body fat, know that no ONE diet is going to suit everyone, and if you’re trying to follow something because your mate is too, but you’re not seeing the results, then potentially it’s not the right plan for you. Seems simple when I write it down – but I think important to remind you.
  2. All body composition assessment methods have strengths and limitations. It’s good to bear in mind the limitations of using just scales as the only indicator, as this doesn’t account for fat mass loss. I’ve had numerous clients basically freak out that they have gained a kilogram overnight because they’ve eaten something high in carbs (causing your body to hold water) or they have done a hard training session (inflamed tissue). It is impossible to gain kilo of fat over a week, let alone a night, but the obsession with scales can make even the most rational person a little … less rational. Thus, if you use the scales, then think about how this makes you feel. And do it at the same time each week, on waking, after you go to the bathroom – etc. IE try to make it consistent. Ditto re: skinfolds – choose a practitioner who is skilled and stick to the same person so any errors are at least consistent errors.
  3. While it’s not about ‘calories in, calories out’, as that is far too simplistic, we do need to create a deficit in calories to drop body fat. Don’t freak out by the next bit of (evidence-backed, science-informed) information: The more fat you’ve got stored, the quicker you can lose this body fat without losing too much muscle mass by creating a large calorie deficit. The leaner an individual is, it is better if the caloric deficit isn’t as dramatic, to help preserve muscle mass. We can use calorie cycling to do this (ie higher calories for some days, lower for others across the course of 7-14 days, such as the 5:2 approach), or a consistently lower calorie approach, whatever fits in with the individual and their adherence. This study found that working on a weekly reduction of 0.7% of body weight better than 1.4% for preservation of lean muscle tissue.
  4. A wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carbohydrate/ketogenic, and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body composition, and this allows flexibility with programme design, which is great – again, there is no one right approach for everyone. AND there is no one approach that will suit the same individual all the time – context, physical activity, stress, budget etc will all affect the suitability of an eating style that will improve body composition. This in part could explain why Weight Watchers, which helped you drop weight in the past, is not working now – regardless of how many points you are under at the end of the day/week. Being flexible rather than dogmatic will go a long way to finding a plan that suits you. I will also add, however, that something based on minimally processed food contains more nutrients – this will nourish your body and provide nutrients to ensure metabolism, brain and gut health are optimised while shifting excess body fat.
  5. When protein amounts are matched in the diet, there doesn’t appear to be an approach that reports a meaningful reduction of fat when we look at different macronutrient composition. All are as effective as each other – it’s sustainability which is the factor to consider. If an individual is insulin sensitive, research shows they are going to be able to lose weight on a moderate carbohydrate diet and potentially perform better on that than a lower carbohydrate diet. The reverse is also true. In addition, when adding resistance training to the mix, in some instances insulin sensitivity is improved. Therefore, knowing your metabolic health markers initially can help you determine what dietary approach might work for you.
  6. However, a ketogenic diet has been shown to have appetite-suppressing potential in part due to its effects on our appetite hormones (as explained in this review), resulting in a spontaneous caloric restriction. That said, for some this may only happen initially and clinically I have seen that this affect appears to wear off. (Note, this is my clinical observation).
  7. Increasing dietary protein to levels significantly beyond current recommendations for athletic populations (up to 2g/kg body weight) may improve body composition as in line with the ISSN’s position stand. It is also much more satiating for those of us who aren’t athletes, particularly in a restricted calorie state (as I’ve discussed here). There is also evidence that increasing protein in the diet beyond 3g/kg body weight and creating a calorie surplus can increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass simultaneously- I know! It’s like magic! Except very difficult to eat that much protein for a lot of people.
  8. Time-restricted feeding (which I’ve written about here) combined with resistance training is an emerging area of research that has thus far shown mixed results with respect to body composition (ie see here and here, however eating within that restricted window does allow for improvements in metabolic health. Much like cycling calories, the window of time that people choose to eat should be based on individual preference in a way that is easy to be sustained in everyday life. There is more to gain from having a good resistance-based training programme and adequate protein (in the context of an awesome diet) than worrying if your eating window is 8 hours a day or 9 hours a day.
  9. Do we starve our metabolism, thus slow it down and lead to fat gain if we restrict calories too much? Only in the context of a restrictive caloric diet and in the absence of resistance training where muscle mass has reduced, and energy expenditure has reduced. This can be mitigated when these are accounted for (see here and here).
  10. In addition to this, clinically what seems to work well is having a metabolic reset meal, where more fat/carb calories are consumed (which some might call a ‘treat’ or ‘cheat’ meal, particularly in the fitness industry) – this might be 1-2 meals every 7-14 days depending on the individual and their goals.
  11. There needs to be more research on women, older adults
  12. There needs to be more research on meal frequency and timing combined with different caloric loads, and with different training regimes.

Despite all of the above, a member of my online nutrition coaching system shared with me her experience with improving overall health (and metabolic markers – prior to embarking on her regime her HbA1c was in ‘pre-diabetic’ range). She found focusing on a higher fat approach, coupled with water fasting helps her control her insulin resistance and overall health much more than focusing on protein intake. While a few years ago this would have set alarm bells ringing in my head, the longer I’m in the game the more I understand that it is so individual as to how someone will respond to a dietary approach. Being willing to experiment with different protocols will help you figure out what works best for you regardless of the research papers.

 

LCHF…why isn’t it working for me? (Part 1)

It’s about this time of year that I start seeing people come through my doors needing some minor (or major) tweaks to their LCHF eating approach. There are usually one of two scenarios.

Scenario #1: When they embarked on LCHF they saw ALL of the benefits they heard about, effortlessly shedding body fat, boundless energy (in training and afterwards), improvement in skin tone, hair condition, sleep and digestive problems. But lately the opposite is true. Despite seemingly nailing this LCHF lifestyle, they’ve noticed they are lacking energy, gaining weight (especially around the middle), latest blood tests have seen their cholesterol levels have shot up (and perhaps triglycerides), they are unable to sleep… … yet if anything, they’ve instigated (and nailed) the hacks they’ve read to optimise their LCHF eating approach. What gives??

Scenario #2: They’ve given it a good go on their own for the last 5 weeks, following it to the letter and despite this, it’s ‘not working for them.’ Worse, their husband/workmate/training partner has taken to it with ease.

Frustrating, much?

While we are all individual as to what is going to work for us, the LCHF approach is a really good one for most people, most of the time. Despite that, there are small things that can derail your best efforts to improve your diet, so I want to cover off the basic (and more nuanced) reasons people don’t fare well on a LCHF approach, and some tips on how to overcome them. I’ve ended up splitting this post into two parts as it was so long!

  1. Too low carb. The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing – information is everywhere, everyone is an expert and the version of paleo/LCHF/JERF that you’ve adopted based on what others are doing may well be too low carb for you. LCHF is a spectrum, and what is low carb for one person may well be higher carb for someone else – generally speaking, anything up to 200g of carbohydrate/day could be low carb. It all depends on context. I see a lot of people who are trying to stay strictly below 25g of carbohydrate a day – too strict (and unnecessary) for most people. Even Prof Tim Noakes, staunch advocate of a LCHF approach to eating (“banting”) has loosened up on this. The people who really benefit from a diet this low would be those embarking on it for therapeutic reasons: diabetes (both types), epilepsy, cognitive health (Alzheimer’s, for example). That’s not to say that others out there can’t make this level of carbohydrate work for them. But if you’ve noticed fat gain (especially around the middle), irritability, hormone imbalances (such as a missed menstrual period), lack of energy (past the initial phases of the LCHF approach), irregularity of bowel motions, sleeplessness – to name a few symptoms, then you may have gone too low. What to do?
    1. Track your diet for 4-5 days to get an average of the grams of carbohydrate you eat per day. If it’s on the very low end of the scale (less than 50g*, for example), then try adding back in some good quality starch to see if any of your symptoms improve. Don’t be pedantic about vegetables. Really. That includes carrots and tomatoes. To be honest, you don’t have to track your carbs if you’re not a numbers person – but it can be a good way to assess if this really is the problem. Use My Fitness Pal, Cron-o-meter, My Net Diary or Easy Diet Diary as nutritional tracking tools. (If you’re embarking on a lower carb diet, this is a good first step regardless, so you don’t make the jump from 400g a day to 60g a day).
    2. If your carbohydrate intake is in the realm of 80-100g carbohydrate, you may not be too low, it might be more of a timing problem – ensuring you have carbohydrate in the meal after a high intensity (i.e. CrossFit or F45) or long duration exercise session can help improve recovery and alleviate a lot of fatigue/irritability. If you’re struggling with insomnia, then adding in some kumara or potato into your evening meal increases production of precursors to melatonin.
    3. Is it more protein you need? Protein can help keep you fuller for longer, stabilise blood sugars (therefore has implications for focus/energy/concentration), promote recovery and help with sleep. Many people fear protein because of the potential for it to be converted to glucose in the body (via gluconeogenesis). For someone following a LCHF diet this isn’t an issue. Try upping your protein portions by 1/3 – ½ at each meal.
    4. If it’s in the initial phases, then up your intake of sodium – to levels more than you think you need. When we drop the carbohydrate content of the diet, we drop a lot of water stores too (hence a rapid loss on the scales) – this is because for every gram of carbohydrates stored, we store an additional 3g of water. Add salt to your meals, a pinch in your water bottle, make a miso drink or drink bone broth.
  2. Not low carb enough. I see this a lot. People equate carbohydrate to bread, pasta, rice and cereal and don’t think about other foods that are predominantly carbohydrate –fruit, dried fruit, ‘green smoothies’ with a fruit base, bliss balls, natural fruit and nut bars… In addition, many products are promoted as ‘sugar free’ when they contain dried fruit, maple sugar, rice malt syrup or some other type of natural sweetener. This may seem elementary to you, but I know many people are confused by this point. Regardless of what you hear, sugar IS just sugar – that one sugar is lower in fructose doesn’t mean it’s not going to influence your blood sugar levels, it’s likely to affect them more. This has to be my biggest bugbear of the ‘real food’ movement; not that these products contain sugar – but that they are marketed as not. This is no better than being told that Nutrigrain is healthy. We all know that’s not true.
    1. Again, track your numbers (as per above) via a tracking tool. A lower carbohydrate approach is not a fixed number, it’s a spectrum. But if you’re still consuming over 200g a day and not engaging in regular physical activity, then something might need to be tweaked (especially if you’re not seeing the results you’re after).
    2. Get rid of the bliss balls, the dried fruit, the paleo muffin or the smoothie from your favourite juice bar that you thought tasted suspiciously sweet for something ‘green’.
    3. Read the ingredient lists on the packages you buy. Sugar has over 56 different names. You probably don’t need to know them all, but it would be good to have an idea, right?
  3. Too many processed foods or snacks. Even if you’ve found a sweet spot with your macronutrient intake, having too many processed ‘low carb’ snacks can continue to drive your appetite hormones in a way that favours eating more than you need. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that tells the body when we’ve had enough to eat, and is involved in the regulation of calories we burn and body fat that we store. A consequence of being over-fat is high circulating leptin levels in the bloodstream, and the brain stops reading signals sent by leptin that we’ve consumed enough food. Instead, it incorrectly believes that we are starving, thus we feel hungrier. Excess body fat increases Inflammation in the body, and is one of the drivers of leptin resistance, and processed food can drive inflammatory pathways in the body – even low carb processed food. And if you’re not over-fat? Well, vegetable oils and certain additives and preservatives found in these foods can drive inflammatory pathways in the body. In addition, an overabundance of processed flours may cause disruptions to our gut microbiome as they are easily digested, perhaps not even making it to the gut bacteria in our lower digestive tract. This can mean we are starving our good bacteria and instead feeding bacteria that release endotoxins, causing increasing inflammation. This can have a secondary effect of increasing your cholesterol level (see this post here). These foods are created in such a way to send signals to your brain’s pleasure centre and drive your appetite for more food that you just don’t need. One of the benefits of a real food approach (which naturally lowers your carbohydrate intake) is that inflammation reduces, insulin drops, gut bacteria can rebalance and the signalling pathways in the brain that regulate your appetite hormones can begin to normalise.
    1. Get rid of most foods or snacks that come in a package with ingredients you don’t recognise.
    2. Eat real food. Base your snacks around hardboiled eggs, cheese (for the dairy tolerant), vegetables, leftover meat, macadamia nuts, egg muffins.
    3. Drop the nut flours. Just because they’re low carb does not mean it’s a free for all with these processed flours.
    4. Increase foods that help balance out your fatty acid profile: more fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) and (grass fed) meat for omega 3 fats. Consider taking a fish oil or algae omega for those who don’t eat fish – and be picky about the supplement!
    5. Take care of your gut: consider a probiotic for 30-60 days (such as Lifestream Advanced, Inner Health Plus, Syntol or Prescript Assist) to help populate the gut with the good guys, but also keep them fed with fermented foods such as sauerkraut, raw apple cider vinegar, water kefir and an abundance of vegetable fibres.

I’ve got more – quite a bit more actually! – but will post that in Part 2 so as not to risk losing your attention ;-). These are three of the basics that people can get wrong (particularly in the initial phases), and the next post will cover some of the more nuanced reasons, and what you can do to correct them. If you’re not sure whether your LCHF diet is working for you, why not jump on and book a consultation with me? An expert eye can help take the thinking out of it for you and save a lot of stress long term.

*50g still pretty low actually! Again, it’s all context 😉

low-carb-zone

Are you in the zone? (PC: http://www.tripfitness.com)