Jeremy Arguelles, NSCA-CPT
When people are interested in improving their workouts or training, they often consider what cardiovascular and strength-training exercises they should do. While these exercises are important, another essential factor that can be overlooked is nutrition and how it can affect the workout.
Likewise, when people want to change their body composition, they may look at reducing calories or cutting out entire food groups for a specific diet. And when they don’t have long-term success, they wonder what went wrong. Again, they often overlook the impact that nutrition has on body composition.
Affect of Nutrition on Workouts/Training
Carbohydrates and fats are our main fuel sources throughout the day. The more active we are, the more carbohydrates we need and use. Our bodies use fats too, but those require more oxygen and are typically for when we are at rest or moving slowly. In contrast, good quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrates help us to feel great, giving us energy, alertness and focus for the workout.
Start your day with a main meal that has a good ratio of carbohydrates, protein and some fats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides dietary recommendations for filling your plate with the different food groups.
Although breakfast bars or granola bars may seem to be a healthy option, be sure to read the labels. Some of the bars contain a lot of preservatives, have been processed or have more than 5 grams of fat—especially saturated fat.
After your main meal, fuel every hour with about 100 calories from fresh fruits and vegetables.
Before a workout, fuel up with a snack of fruits and vegetables. These are the best forms of carbohydrates. They are nutrient dense, provide a great amount of energy and fiber, and have a variety of tastes. They are easily accessible and less expensive than snack bars or pre-workout formulas, plus they are ready to eat and usually in the perfect portion size. An apple, banana or orange has fewer than 100 calories per serving. A cup of other fruits and vegetables—strawberries, blueberries, cherries, carrots, cherry tomatoes—are less than 200 calories, taste great and help us feel terrific so we can perform well throughout the day.
Assessing Body Composition
Good nutrition plays a factor in your body composition. One way to look at your body composition is by calculating your body mass index or BMI. To calculate your BMI, divide your weight by your height. The recommendation is to keep BMI less than 25. While your height will stay about the same throughout your adult life, weight can change, so your BMI can change. BMI does not account for muscle or fat gain or loss. It’s just a general number to quickly assess health.
The Centers for Disease Control’s BMI categories are:
Below 18.5: Underweight
18.5 – 24.9: Normal or healthy weight
25.0 – 29.9: Overweight
30.0 and above: Obese
While BMI recommendations are based on height and weight, actual BMI can vary by person—by gender and by age. It may be beneficial as someone ages, especially for those over 65 years old, to have more stored fat in case they become sick with a severe cold, flu, pneumonia or a long-term illness like cancer. With that additional body fat percentage, they would have adequate energy stores to fuel normal body processes when at rest and during recovery—particularly if the person has a loss of appetite.
Body composition is assessed in a variety of ways. The gold standard for looking at body fat percentages is hydrostatic or underwater weighing. By weighing a person out of the water and then in the water, the difference indicates the amount of fat, since fat floats. Additional methods include a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, air displacement plethysmograph and bioelectrical impedance analysis.
How Body Composition Affects Health
If your body composition is above or below average, it will affect your performance throughout the day as well as your overall health. Good body composition impacts blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. The closer you are to your ideal weight, the easier it is to move around and be active. When you do not have excess body fat, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood, which carries oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and organs throughout the body. Since your heart does not have to work as hard, it can be strong and efficient.
Contrast that with a person who carries excess weight. The heart has to supply blood and oxygen to these areas. Capillaries and veins still have to provide the excess fat and skin with blood to stay alive. To do this, the heart has to beat more times per minute, hour, day, week, month and year, making it more tired. The flow of blood can be disrupted by waste building up in the arteries, veins and capillaries that cause high cholesterol. Plaque build-up, can lead to atherosclerosis or hardening of arteries. Those conditions cause high blood pressure — another condition that slows down the blood flow to the body. And, if a clot or blockage forms, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Improving Body Composition Through Nutrition
To improve body composition, consistency is key. Eating the right foods at the right times in the right portion sizes, while being consistently active (i.e. burning at least 300 calories per day through physical activity) will be essential.
But between exercise and nutrition, the nutritional part will be the game changer. When your diet is clean and filled with low-fat fresh foods, you will begin to see a loss in body weight and body fat, and have more energy and better quality sleep.
Keys to eating clean include eating fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs, whole grain rice, whole grain bread, oatmeal, cereal, etc. Another key is not to add sugar or salt, or consume additional sugars. Also try to avoid food in boxes or bags as well as canisters of protein, electrolyte drinks and carbohydrate-replacement powders that are processed or have preservatives.
Fuel up your body starting in the morning when you wake up, burn some of those calories, fuel up some more, burn those calories and repeat. Doing this throughout the day will help make this a permanent lifestyle change.