Yes, it’s that time of year again: post-festive season weight gain (or re-gain), maybe a little bit of bloating, and the siren call of the New Year Resolution all working together to compel us to lose weight. But before you take that trepidation-filled step onto the scale, ask yourself, “what am I measuring here?”
If you’re measuring your weight – that number that shocks and appalls or possibly delights us – you’re heading down the wrong track.
All too often, weight management efforts focus on the headline number, or ‘weight’. That number shown on a weighing scale becomes the target of our attempts to look better and feel better about ourselves. Yet focusing on this number actually isn’t the most appropriate way to see ourselves, or set our weight- and health- related goals: understanding our body composition is a better way forward.
Our body is composed of two main types of tissue: Fat Mass (FM) and Lean Mass (LM). FM is all the fat stored in cells throughout the body whilst LM is all other tissues including muscle, bone, organs, blood, and skin. About half of our weight is muscle; this changes during our adult years and particularly as we grow older.
From our third decade or so, we typically lose about 5 pounds of muscle and gain about 15 pounds of fat (an interesting study here); this has real consequences for our shape, our metabolism, and our long-term weight control. As we lose muscle, our silhouette alters to one that’s a bit more saggy and baggy. The muscle that burns more energy (often referred to as ‘calories’) is replaced by fat that burns more slowly; for every pound of muscle lost, our metabolism can slow down by about 35 calories a day. So we can eat the same things but weight may gradually begin to creep on.
Too much body fat is a major health risk, being associated with low back pain, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other complaints. Many of us are aware of the health risks of carrying too much weight and we try to lose weight; whilst this is admirable, inappropriate weight loss may result in the loss of muscle rather than fat, further slowing our metabolism. So it’s no wonder then that when we stop dieting (which we all do eventually) the weight returns, often bringing more weight with it.
A better way to lose ‘weight’ involves reducing Fat Mass whilst preserving, or even better, increasing Lean Mass.
Eating adjustments include:
- following a Low GL, Mediterranean, diet with plenty of fish (especially oily), lean meat, eggs, olive oil, nuts, seeds, pulses and legumes (such as beans and peas) and vegetables
- appropriate servings of protein at every eating episode
- sort out your sleep:wake cycle, and stress management: these impact eating behaviour and food choices at a fundamental level
Activity adjustments include:
- cardiovascular exercise to burn more calories, minimum two to three times a week (you can do anything that feels good, is enjoyable, and raises your heart rate appropriately: think mildly sweaty…)
- strength training, two to three times a week.
Also called ‘resistance training’, ONLY strength training can preserve existing muscle and create extra lean tissue. A basic programme of 20-30 minutes that covers all the major muscle groups and is performed two to three times a week may get excellent results (there’s a handy blog from Pure Gym here).
This three pronged approach combining eating for health, moving more, and building strength and muscle is the best way to permanently achieve a healthy weight, healthy body composition and a fabulous silhouette.