Home Posts tagged "Body Composition"

Is a Calorie Really Just a Calorie?

A while back, I posted the following Tweet, and the response got a bit "interesting."

While most folks shared my sentiment, there were also a small number of followers who decided to hop on a soapbox and remind me that very few foods are, in fact, evil, and that total calories are really what matters in the energy balance equation. Months later, Brian St. Pierre (Director of Performance Nutrition for Precision Nutrition) made the following observation during his seminar at Cressey Sports Performance:

It got me to thinking about how it'd be a good idea to bring Brian in for a guest blog on the topic, so here it is. It's especially timely, as Brian wrote the nutrition guide for The High Performance Handbook, which is on sale for $30 off this week.

I'll let Brian take it from here; enjoy! -EC

Energy balance determines body weight, not necessarily body composition.

There has been a lot of debate about the energy balance equation in the fitness industry. Perhaps, after all, calories-in vs. calories-out is not the ultimate determinant of long-term body weight. Lets put some of it to rest right now.

It is a fundamental law that you need a positive or negative energy (i.e. calorie) balance over time to gain or lose bodily tissues (e.g. muscle, fat).

It is possible to manipulate bodyweight through changes in the amount of extracellular fluid (i.e. water) one is carrying. But this does not reflect changes in mass that matters to most people – muscle or fat.

And to be clear, the energy balance equation is actually more complicated and intertwined than it appears. Energy-in and energy-out are not mutually exclusive – a change to one affects the other. Neither side is static.

Your energy in and energy out are both generally regulated by your brain, so when you purposefully and significantly alter one of those, the brain and body often tries to compensate.

Like so:

This is why calorie math can seem so flawed. You expect your daily 500kcal deficit to lead to a weekly 3500kcal deficit, which should theoretically lead to one pound of fat loss per week.

But this isn’t how the body works. Once you start lowering intake, output gets lowered to account for that. And as you start losing weight, output gets lowered more (because you are moving a smaller body, and due to adaptive thermogenesis).

Plus, if linear math worked for weight loss, you would lose one pound per week indefinitely with that 500kcal deficit, which clearly doesn’t work.

Ok, so we’ve established that energy balance ultimately dictates long-term bodyweight.

But, that doesn’t mean that all calories-in, or even all calories-out, are equal.

So, what determines body composition?

Actually, many things. Body composition is ultimately determined by:

• energy balance
• macronutrient intake (especially protein)
• age and sex hormone levels
• exercise style/frequency/intensity/duration (e.g. resistance training vs marathon training vs walking)
• medication use (e.g. birth control)
• genetic predisposition (as well as epigenetics, or even just gene expression)
• sleep quality and quantity
• stress
• and more

Ultimately, this brings me back to the question of: is a calorie a calorie?

On one hand, the answer is yes. A calorie is a unit of measure, so of course a calorie is a calorie.

On the other hand, not all calories consumed have equal absorption or digestion kinetics, cause the same hormonal response, or have the same effects on bodily tissues.

If one ate 3000kcal per day of highly processed foods vs 3000kcal per day of lean protein, fibrous veggies, and minimally processed carbs and fats, the two intakes wouldn’t necessarily have the same long-term outcome on body weight.

Because the composition of the calories-in would have differing impacts on calories-out (e.g. thermic effect of feeding would be higher with the minimally processed foods intake and higher protein), as well there would be fewer calories absorbed from the minimally processed foods. Thus, the minimally processed intake would result in more calories-out, and less calories-in overall.

And it especially wouldn’t have the same long-term outcome on one’s body composition. Particularly due to the very low protein intake from the highly processed diet, which would likely lead to lean mass loss over time. Not too mention the differences in micronutrient intake, likely impacting hormone status, energy levels, etc.

(And of course, these differing intakes certainly would not have the same outcome on long-term health. Nor does this take into account the drastically different effects on satiation and satiety these diets would create. Nor many other factors that influence eating. Which are nicely outlined here.)

Too often, I see fitness pros arguing that food quality doesn’t matter. That the only thing that matters is meeting your calorie and macro goals.

This is likely mostly true for body weight and body composition management, at least for the short term.

However, there are other elements at play here for long-term health, body composition, performance, and quality of life.

Fiber intake, phytonutrients, effects of food on gene expression, effects on satiety and satiation, enjoyment of intake for sustainability. And so much more.

The fact is most people aren’t going to count macros. Some might, and that’s awesome. Use that approach with those folks. However, most won’t.

So, by getting folks to focus on eating mostly minimally processed foods, as well as adequate protein, it can make it easier for them to control their energy balance and get in an appropriate intake of macronutrients.

Minimally processed foods help to accomplish this in many ways:
• generally less calorie-dense
• higher in water content
• higher in fiber content
• generally not hyper-rewarding
• generally not hyper-palatable
• cause faster satiation (satisfaction to end a meal)
• increase satiety levels (levels of satisfaction between meals)

Ultimately, pretty much all foods can fit into a healthy and sustainable intake. The amount to which they fit in will depend on the person and their goals.

As usual, most things fall onto a spectrum. Instead of preaching that people shouldn’t eat any white carbs, or gluten, or sugar, or whatever the demon of the day is, or that all that matters is IIFYM, the best bet for most people is to end up somewhere in the middle.

Both food quality and quantity matter. For most people, who aren’t going to weigh or measure every bit of food they eat, food quality will actually impact food quantity for the reasons outlined above.

This doesn’t mean folks need to eat “clean” - whatever that might mean. It simply means most folks would do best eating mostly minimally processed foods. Processed foods are okay, too, in reasonable amounts. They should just be eaten less often, or in smaller quantities. It’s the context of someone’s entire intake that determines their body weight and body composition, not any one food.

In the end, remember that while energy balance does determine your body weight, there are other important factors in addition to energy balance that determines your body composition.

Note: all the references to this article will be posted as the first comment below.

Looking for more great nutrition lessons, practical recommendations, and sample meal plans? Check out Brian's Nutrition Guide as part of The High Performance Handbook Gold Package.

About the Author

A Certified Sports Nutritionist as well as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Brian St. Pierre also holds a Master’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics. As a student, Brian’'s passion led him to Cressey Sports Performance, where he worked as the facility's first intern, and subsequently as a strength coach and the center’'s head nutritionist. Now he serves as Precision Nutrition's Director of Performance Nutrition. 

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Fat Loss Friday: 15 Lessons on Leaning Out

Usually, my "random thoughts" series focus on anything from corrective exercises to sports performance training. However, given the release of my buddy John Romaniello's great new fat loss resource, The Omega Body Blueprint, I figured I'd throw out 15 thoughts on the subject of leaning out. Here goes!

1. We often hear about how the average American consumes a certain amount of <insert unhealthy food or beverage here> each year. What I'd be curious to hear is how much of the excess consumption comes from "nibbles," "tastes," "bites," and "samples. In other words, I'd be willing to bet that people are getting a lot of extra calories with quick tastes throughout the day - whether it's a "preview" taste of whatever they're cooking, finishing a child's meal, or trying a sample of a product as they walk through the grocery store. I'd be willing to bet that just removing these tastes from one's diet would make a significant difference in portion control for the average person who struggles with his/her weight.

2. There's been some research on how sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, but I don't think it's gotten the attention it deserves. As such, I'll put it out there right here: poor sleep quality absolutely has a profound effect on body composition! Take it from a guy who has six month old twin daughters at home; the past six months have been "eye opening" from a training results standpoint, too!

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This obviously happens predominantly through endocrine mediums that modulate appetite and where we store calories; this has been well established in research on night shift workers in the past. However, we can't overlook the indirect impact it has on training quality in a more experienced athletic population. If you're chronically sleep deprived, it's going to impact your performance in the gym. I, personally, found that while my "peak" fitness levels didn't fall off, my ability to display them consistently did. In other words, as an example, I could still go out and deadlift 600+ pounds, but I couldn't do it as often or as predictably. Over time, those hills and valleys add up to a detraining effect.

Additionally, when you're dragging and crunched for time, there is a tendency to cut corners on everything from warm-ups to finding quick pick-me-ups like energy drinks. This is a very slippery slope.

3. I've never bothered to confirm that the numbers are right on the money, but over the years, I've heard that 80% of North Americans are chronically dehydrated, and that dehydration is the #1 cause of daytime fatigue. If these are, in fact, true, how come nobody ever highlights drinking more water as a means of improving fat loss efforts? It improves satiety and "displaces" calorie-containing beverages - and that's on top of helping to optimize exercise performance and "normal" health factors. I wish more folks would look to water as a "magic pill" over anything they can buy on the shelf of a supplement store.

4. Fat loss is pretty simple, until you're 90% of the way to your goal. After that, EVERYTHING matters: macros, hormones, programming, timing, and a host of other factors. This was a key point John Romaniello makes in his new e-book. You wouldn't take your Ferrari to a mechanic who specializes in working on Honda Civics, so you need to make sure you seek out expertise from people who have actually helped people to finish that final 10% on the way to the goal.

roman

5. Everyone has a few foods that they find irresistible - food that they always eat if they're in the house. If you're trying to drop body fat, before you take any other steps, you need to get these foods out of the house. The goal should be making "cheating" as difficult to accomplish as possible. For me, it's natural peanut butter.

6. A lot of people can only train three times per week - and that's totally fine. With that said, I'm still largely in agreement with Dr. John Berardi's observation that the most fit people you'll encounter get at least six hours of exercise in per week. In other words, if you've only got three hours to work out each week, your training definitely better be dense; you need a lot of volume and relatively short rest intervals. Don't expect to be in phenomenal shape doing a 3x5 program MoWeFr unless you have an awesome diet and are really busting your butt working hard during those three sessions.

7. When it comes to athletes, gradual reductions in body fat are the name of the game. You see, often, body weight – and not body composition – are what predicts their success. Pitchers are a perfect example; I’ve seen many who have just indiscriminately lost body weight, only to see their velocity drop considerably. This may come from the actual loss of body mass, the increased training volume that caused it, the type of training (extra aerobic activity?), or – most likely – a combination of all these factors. One thing is for sure, though: dramatic weight reductions rarely work out really well.

8. One of the biggest complaints of folks on "diets" (as much as I hate that term) is that healthy food gets too bland. Without even knowing it, a lot of them start adding sauces that are loading with extra calories, usually from sugar. Nobody ever seems to recognize that BBQ sauce and ketchup can be loaded with sugar, for instance.

Fortunately, a quick solution is to encourage them to gravitate toward using spices and herbs over sauces to add some flavor to meat and vegetables. I love turmeric, sea salt, and pepper on my eggs, as an example.

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9. Avoiding liquid calories is the still, in my opinion, the biggest dietary game-changer most folks in the general population can implement. I wish I could go back in time and eliminate every soda I drank as a kid.

10. There is an inverse relationship between strength preservation and conditioning intensity during a fat loss training phase. In other words, if maintaining strength is a high priority, you'd be wise to leave the aggressive interval training out - and instead opt for lower-intensity supplemental conditioning. Obviously, this means results will come a bit slower - but you'll hold on to your hard-earned strength gains more easily.

11. My business partner, Pete, told me a funny story the other day, and I thought I'd share it here as a good fat loss lesson.

Pete did his first "big" presentation - to an audience of about 150 fitness professionals - last month. As luck would have it, he wears a watch that also tracks his heart rate - and Pete happened to glance down at it right before he went on stage to present. His resting heart rate is normally in the 55-60bpm range - and it was up over 120bpm at that moment!

peted

Obviously, this is a specific challenging, unfamiliar incident that can get heart rate to spike. However, there are people out there who respond to most challenges like this; they are constantly "wired" throughout the day. This obviously has both short- and long-term health impacts, and you can bet that if you're always on edge, it's going to be a lot harder to lose body fat.

We don't have the option of just removing stressors from our lives, but we can change the way we respond to them. A few coping strategies to keep you mellow and unconditionally positive in the face of adversity might just help to get/keep you lean, too.

12. Speaking of stress, I'm a firm believer that sometimes, when it comes the war on excess body fat, we need to look at reducing stressors before we look to add stressors (via exercise and caloric restriction). Think about it: if you have a busy, overweight executive who is sleeping four hours a night and crushing terrible fast food, is the first priority to put him on a crazy high-volume exercise program? Shouldn't we try to add some quality sleep, better food, a little massage and/or meditation, and a moderate exercise program from which he can bounce back? In other words, isn't it a better bet - both for short-term health and long-term adherence - to "normalize" routines before getting on a crazy routine?

13. If you want to understand fat loss, you need to understand insulin management. For the real geeks out there, check out this paper I wrote for an exercise endocrinology course back in graduate school. There were enough references in there to last me an entire career...

14. It's very easy to fall off the bandwagon on the nutrition front when you're on vacation. If you're only going on 1-2 vacations per year, this probably isn't a big deal. However, if you're someone who travels extensively and does a lot of weekend trips, these dietary missteps can add up. Vacations are extra challenging because they often include all-you-can-eat buffets, plentiful dessert choices, and lots of alcohol. You'd be amazed at how easy it is to pack away 5,000 calories in a day if you're having two big ol' strawberry daiquiris while on the beach, and then enjoying a slice of cheesecake and two glasses of wine with dinner.

The last thing I would ever tell our clients to do is avoiding "indulging" while on vacation, so my strategy has always been to simply encourage them to get some exercise in first thing in the morning on half the days they're on vacation. In addition to the short-term metabolic benefits it yields, an exercise session has a way of keeping people accountable to their diets so that they avoid going overboard. If you work out early in the day, you're more likely to go grab a healthy breakfast - which will help to limit caloric intake later in the day. And, you're less likely to have that extra glass of wine at 11pm if you know you're going to be in the resort's health club at 8am.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who took a TRX to Costa Rica for his honeymoon, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt!

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15. I'm constantly amazed at how many calories I need to eat to maintain my body weight - and I don't consider myself an ectomorph, by any means. In fact, I'm probably more toward the endomorph ends of the spectrum. What separates me from the rest of the endomorph population in this regard? To me, it's two things:

a. I eat a very clean diet - which means I need a greater quantity of food.

b. My daily non-exercise activity level is pretty high, as I typically walk 4-5 miles per day while coaching on the floor. I'm also not very good at sitting still, whether it's tapping my foot while I'm working on the computer, or constantly bouncing around the house doing different things. I'm actually more stressed when I'm sitting still!

To this end, I think most folks who struggle with their weight need to find ways to add a bit more movement to their daily lives. Wearing a pedometer can be a great initiative in this regard.

In wrapping this article up, if you're looking from some direction from a guy who has put far more time and effort into learning about the rhyme and reason for optimal fat loss approaches, I'd encourage you to check out John Romaniello's new resource, The Omega Body Blueprint. It's on sale for 50% off through tomorrow (Saturday) at midnight, and I really enjoyed going through it.

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Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training: Installment 6

It's time for this month's sports performance training musings. Many of these thoughts came about because we have a lot of our professional baseball guys back to kick off their off-season training, so I'm doing quite a few assessments each week. In no particular order...

1. There is a difference between "informative" assessments and "specific" assessments.

I recently spoke with a professional baseball pitcher who told me that his post-season evaluation included a 7-site body fat assessment, but absolutely no evaluation of scapular control or rotator cuff strength/timing.  Skinfold calipers (especially in the hands of someone without a ton of experience using them) are hardly accurate or precise, but they can at least be "informative." In other words, they tell you something about an athlete. 

However, I wouldn't call a body fat assessment a "specific" assessment. In other words, it's really hard to say that "Player X" is going to get injured because his body fat is 17% instead of 15%.

Body_Fat_Caliper

Conversely, we absolutely know that having poor scapular control and rotator cuff function is associated with a dramatically increased risk of injury in throwers. Checking out upper extremity function is a "specific" assessment.

This example, to me, illustrates why good assessments really are athlete- and sport-specific. Body fat assessments mean a lot more to hockey players than they do to baseball players, but nobody ever attributed a successful NHL career to having great rotator cuff strength.

Don't assess just for the sake of assessing; instead, assess to acquire pertinent information that'll help guide your program design to reduce injury risk and enhance performance.

2. Extremes rarely work.

Obviously, in a baseball population, most athletes have at least some kind of injury history. It's generally a lot of elbows and shoulders, but core and lower extremity injuries definitely show up on health histories. When I see these issues, I always try to ask plenty of questions to get a feel for what kind of training preceded these injuries. In the majority of cases, injuries seem to come after a very narrow focus - or specialization period.

Earlier this week, I saw a pro baseball guy with chronic on-and-off low back pain. He commented on how it flared up heavily in two different instances: once in college, and the second time during his first off-season. In both cases, it was after periods when he really heavily emphasized squatting 2-3 times per week in an effort to add mass to his lower body. Squats were the round peg, and his movement faults made his body the square hole. Had he only squatted once a week, he might have gotten away with it - but the extreme nature of the approach (high volume and frequency) pushed him over the edge.

I've seen command issues in pitchers who threw exclusively weighted balls, but rarely played catch with another human being. I've seen plenty of medial elbow discomfort in athletes who got too married to the idea of adding a ton of extra weight to their pull-ups.

General fitness folks, powerlifters, and other strength sport athletes can get away with "extreme" specialization programs. Heck, I even co-created a resource called The Specialization Success Guide!

SSG

However, athletes in sports that require a wide array of movements just don't seem to do well with a narrow training focus over an extended period of time. Their bodies seem to crave a rich proprioceptive environment. I think this is why "clean-squat-bench press only" programs leave so many athletes feeling beat-up, unathletic, and apathetic about training.  

3. Consider athletes' training experience before you determine their learning styles.

I'm a big believer in categorizing all athletes by their dominant learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

Visual learners can watch you demonstrate an exercise, and then go right to it.

Auditory learners can simply hear you say a cue, and then pick up the desired movement or position.

Kinesthetic learners seem to do best when they're actually put in a position to appreciate what it feels like, and then they can crush it.

ECCishek

In young athletes and inexperienced clients, you definitely want to try to determine what learning style predominates with them so that you can improve your coaching. Conversely, in a more advanced athlete with considerable training experience, I always default to a combination of visual and auditory coaching. I'll simply get into the position I want from them, and try to say something to the point (less than ten words) to attempt to incorporate it into a schema they likely already have.

This approach effectively allows me to leverage their previous learning to make coaching easier. Chances are that they've done a comparable exercise - or at least another drill that requires similar patterns - in previous training. As such, they might be able to get it 90% correct on the first rep, so my coaching is just tinkering.

Sure, there will still be kinesthetic learners out there, but I find that they just aren't as common in advanced athletes with significant training experience. As such, I view kinesthetic awareness coaching as a means to the ultimate end of "subconsciously" training athletes to be more in tune with visual and auditory cues that are easier to deliver, especially in a group setting.

4. Separate training age from chronological age.

This can be a difficult concept to relate, so I'll try an example.

I have some 16-year-old athletes who have trained with us at Cressey Sports Performance for 3-4 years and have great anterior core awareness and control. I'd have no problem giving them the slideboard bodysaw push-up, which I'd consider a reasonably advanced anterior core and upper body strength challenge that requires considerable athleticism.

Conversely, I've had professional baseball players in their mid 20s who've shown up on their first day with us and been unable to do a single quality push-up. The professional athlete designation might make you think that they require advanced progressions, but the basics still work with the pros. You might just find that they picked things up quicker - and therefore can advance to new progressions a bit more rapidly than the novice 13-year-old.

Quality years of training means a lot more than simply the number of years a young athlete has been alive, so make sure you're working off the right number!

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