Better Body Composition Or Simple Weight Loss?

A good friend of mine once said weight loss is easy. Lock yourself in a closet for a few days and you'll drop plenty of weight. Pretty far-fetched but he was right-on with the idea of losing weight. People generally come to me asking for a weight loss solution but what they really want is a change in body composition. It is a good idea to understand the difference between simply losing weight and changing body composition. Being able to differentiate the two will ensure you understand and choose the proper path to get results and maintain them. To many readers, this may seem like a technical oversight that will cause no consequence, but it very much is an important distinction. Let's look at the basic definition of both here in the fitness realm. Losing weight is simply reducing any body mass. Body mass includes fat mass (FM), and fat free mass (FFM), which includes various connective tissue, bone, muscle, organs and body fluids. On any given day a person can gain and lose three pounds of weight, temporarily, without changing any daily behaviors. So, already we can see how unstable the idea of weight loss can be.

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On the other hand, changing body composition for the better is more likely to address what a person desires, when it comes to aesthetics, performance and overall health. In the fitness industry a person can create or maintain a good body composition by maintaining or gaining FFM while losing FM. One major difference in weight loss and body composition changing is that changing the composition may or may not change the weight of an individual. So, it is very possible for someone to lose pounds of fat and not lose any weight on the scale. This is because of the respective ratio between FM and FFM. A person can gain muscle and water while losing fat causing no scale weight change. Also a person can become leaner while sustaining or even gaining weight. Once again this is because the ratio of FFM to FM. Another way to look at it is fat mass is spread throughout the body. It really takes up more space than fat free mass. Fat mass is also lighter in weight then muscle mass. So fat can be lost and muscle sustained or gained causing very little change in the body's weight but the size and composition of the body still changes, for the better.

Now that we have a handle of what each is let's look into why you are better off focusing on changing body composition than simply losing weight. So-called doctor endorsed weight loss clinics and over advertised fitness franchises are popping up everywhere with bold banners showing a skinny someone holding a pair of gigantic pants with a caption reading something like "lose 50lb in 4 weeks". It is possible and pretty extreme. The unfortunate part is losing weight simply means losing various body masses (not just fat) to get to a certain weight. Also, the ability to sustain the loss of weight without respect for better body composition is unlikely. Many who have focused on shedding a great deal of weight, without regards for a good body composition, end up with the consequences of lowered metabolism, lowered sex drive, raised fat ratio creating a "skinny-fat composition".

Being that extreme weight loss tactics are unstable, there is a very high chance of the dreaded "snap back" reaction after the dieting is complete. Many times a person will gain the weight back if not more. The homeostasis human body does not want to change unless it is necessary for survival. So unless you are an athlete constantly practicing or have any other type of active and demanding lifestyle, your body probably won't need to change much for survival. To give you a clear example, let's say someone goes out to lose the weight with an extreme doctor endorsed diet and your typical aerobics classes. She loses weight quickly. Skin sags a bit, she feels miserable more times than not, and not much muscle was maintained, so she is skinny and fat. She of course celebrates her new skinny-fat body by partying a few weekends and soon she begins binge snacking. One month later our skinny yet fat becomes plain fat. Quickly she goes back to get more supplements and injections from her extreme weight loss clinic professionals, and this time she drops out of the program after few weeks and begins binging again. When this example decided to lose weight by doing aerobic activities like aerobic classes, combined with extreme diets she found that there still is not enough demand for the body to keep muscle from being cannibalized for fuel or lose fat. Even though the example is fictitious, this is something I have seen constantly. Moral of the story, the simple, highly unstable, weight loss may happen rapidly, but the side effects of bad moods, bad joint and bone health, lower metabolism, lower sex drive and an increase in fat storage is simply not worth it. As you can see weight loss without respect for body composition is pretty worthless.

Contrary to this is a better idea of changing body composition for the better. Body composition changing would involve sustaining as much FFM as possible and for many it would also mean increasing it. Because the FFM is promoting an optimal metabolism, and active level can be sustained. However, this type of change cannot always be tracked by simply looking in the mirror every day. So it is best to use different tools of measurement to get solid information. As bodybuilder coach Christian Thibadeau once stated there are certain points while losing fat where not much change will be seen in the mirror. In general that zone is between 18-15% body fat for men and 25-19% for women. At these points the data you collect on your body will speak for itself.

Know you fat percentage range. This range is the same regardless of age!

Minimum amount of bodyfat required to maintain a healthy body



Optimal fat range for good body composition



It is best to combine simple tools with your scale readings. I would suggest you use body measuring tape for your hip and waist measurement, if you are doing it alone, or full body measurement if you have someone to do it for you. Another way is using skin fold caliper if again someone is measuring you or bioelectrical fat impedance device if you are tracking yourself. A word of warning, the impedance device needs to be done at the same times and on an empty stomach. I say empty stomach because the measurement is based on water in your system and different foods cause different reactions internally. Also, it is not as reliable but will give you a good "ballpark" fat estimate.

Now understand that sustaining FFM only comes when you demand it to stay. Brisk walks and jogging are not going to work for this. You need to overload the muscles and connective tissue with primal compound movements (like pushups, chin-ups, squats, dips etc.) and there variations. You also need to be smart about your choice of energy system training. Jogging aimlessly leads to muscle wasting (1,2). Change your jog into something more powerful. It does not have to be a full out sprint, but it should be fast. You can combine this with slower paces or active stretching, better known as interval training. One last note for this point, FFM is maintained by constant activity. So even when you get the body you want, if you want to sustain it you must remain active (3,4). Also as men and women age the rate of muscle cannibalization and fat storing increases dramatically. In order to off set this condition you need to train with proper resistance training and remain active all through your life. Studies have shown that when men or women of older ages begin to train with medium to high levels of intensity their FFM increases, FM decreases and RMR is increased, which equals a healthy fat burning machine (1,3).

Following nutritional guidelines that promote higher protein intakes will help you sustain FFM and keep vital functions of the body maintained, especially for hypocaloric diets (6). We are simply protein fortified beings. The human body can function and do anything with protein. Diets high in protein will result in better body composition (5,6). Take protein out of the equation and you will have problems later. Also higher protein diets have been shown to reduce tyglycerol total in people as well as raise HDL cholesterol levels (5,6). Contrary to popular misbelief YOU NEED CERTAIN CHOLESETROLS. HDL cholesterol is very much needed for the body to create testosterone. Without it say good bye to sex drive, muscle maintenance ability and better moods. One last note, during diets of lower calories protein must be high to sustain as much FFM as possible.

So, make sure to always put better body composition in front of simple and deceiving weight loss.


1. Garrow JS et al. Meta-analysis: effect of exercise, with or without dieting, on the body composition of overweight subjects. Eur J Clin Nutri. 1995 Jan(1):1-10

2. Dengel DR et al. Effects of weight loss by diet alone or combined with aerobic exercise on body composition in older obese men. Journ Metabolism.1994 Jul: 43(7) 867-71.

3. Kyle UG et al. Eight-year longitudinal changes in body composition in healthy Swiss adults. J Am Coll Nutri. 2006 DEC:25 (6):493-501.

4. Kyle UG et al. Sedentarism affects body fat mass index and fat-free mass index in adults aged 18 to 98 years. J Nutri. 2004 Mar:20(3):255-60.

5. Evans EM et al. Effects of diet and exercise on the density and composition of the fat-free mass in obese women. Med Sci Sports Exer. 1999 Dec:31(12):1778-87.

6. Kayman DK et al. A Reduced Ratio of Dietary Carbohydrate to Protein Improves Body Composition and Blood Lipid Profiles during Weight Loss in Adult Women. J Nutri. 2003 Feb:133:411-17.

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