Get lean or lose weight? Which do you choose?

I recently completed a webinar put on by Dietitian Central, a website that is certified to offer continuing education units for registered dietitians. Because I love sports nutrition, I’ve purchased credits to participate in the webinars of my choice. I don’t need anymore CEUs to renew my registration come 2018 as I’ve collected many over the last 4 years, but I enjoy learning and engaging my brain.

This webinar was conducted by Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, an RD practicing in the Dallas Ft. Worth area and although we don’t have to complete a test or questions at the end of the webinars, I always like to take notes.

Here are some of the take aways from this webinar. A lot of it is info I’m familiar with, but it never hurts to take these courses, and of course, I do learn new information.

So many of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have been for general weight loss. Athletes have different requirements, but anyone looking to lose body fat or change up their body composition can benefit from this information.

Our bodies are made up of four main components when looking at what makes up our weight: lean body mass, fat mass, water, and bones. A common goal of not only athletes, but many average gym goers, is to gain muscle and lose body fat. If your goal is simply to “lose weight,” can you be more specific? Do you want to lose body fat, or do you want to lose overall body mass (both fat and lean body mass, LBM)?

Would you rather have 5 pounds of muscle or 5 pounds of fat? Muscle makes up lean body mass.

A great way to know what our body composition looks like is to do a DXA scan or jump into a bodpod, but that’s not always accessible to most people. If your gym has an in body analysis device, you can use it, but always ensure to use the same machine at the same gym as there is variance between machines. While they are not 100% accurate, you can use your first reading as a baseline and go from there to monitor results.

Here’s a chart to see where you stand if you’re able to analyze your body composition:

Female Male
Essential Fat 10-12% 2-4%
Athletes 14-20% 6-13%
Fitness 21-24% 14-17%
Acceptable 25-31% 18-25%
Obese 32%+ 25%+

As you can tell, I took this photo from somewhere else!

Athletes have more to factor in when considering diet and meal plans. They typically need to consume more calories than the average gym goer and often their particular sport will dictate what types and how much food should be eaten. If you’re an athlete, you may have a difficult time getting in all the calories you need and if you’re in the leaning out phase, restricting energy, losing weight can be difficult. Actually, losing weight can be difficult for anybody! When we restrict energy, our drive to eat is stronger. More ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger, is produced. When more ghrelin is produced, people may eat more, leading to weight gain, the opposite of the intended goal, weight loss. A common issue or reason for people to not stay within a calorie restricted diet necessary for weight loss is because they feel hungry. If this happens to you, there are some measures you can take. Ensure you’re getting adequate fiber in the diet. Fiber leads to a feeling of fullness and slows digestion. Some low calorie sources of fiber are in low carb vegetables. Adding some greens is a great way to not only get fiber, but other vital vitamins and minerals, so feel free to get some in with every meal. Another trick is to ensure adequate protein at mealtime and with snacks. It also digests slowly and has proven benefits when consumed over the course of a day.
On the flip side, leptin is the hormone that signal fullness. Eat slowly and pay attention to these cues to prevent over eating.
When it comes to energy expenditure, or simply, burning calories, there are four components.
RMR: Resting Metabolic Rate- the rate at which the body burns calories to sustain life. This is what you’d burn in a given day doing nothing. It costs calories to think and breathe. Our organs also burn a lot of calories.
TEF: Thermic effect of food: Eating food burns calories, but only to an extent. It comprises about 10% of calories burned per day and some foods burn more than others. Protein burns the most calories during digestion, about 30%, because of it’s complex process of metabolism. Carbohydrates about 5-10%, and fats, about 0-5%. To clarify, I looked this up on line and found a more specific breakdown for an example on actually, but it makes sense. The author writes, “If you eat 200 calories of protein, your body will use between 40-70 of them in digestion.” In that example, those numbers fall within that approximate 30% range.
EEE: Exercise Energy Expenditure: This accounts for how many calories are burned during exercise. This is the most variable component. The more we exercise, the more calories we burn.
NEAT: Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis: Energy expended through typically uncalculated movements and activity throughout the day. This can include walking up and down stairs, getting up to get something, even body posture contributes. Some people may expend more it they fidget often, tap their toe, bounce a leg, etc.

Something to think about: as we age, our RMR slows. Females can experience a 2% decline per decade and males, 3%.

Of the four components mentioned above, EEE is the most variable and depends on frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. Furthermore, high intensity exercises will increase the amount of calories burned over the course of the day via EPOC, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. According to ACE, the American Council on Exercise, “EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function.” This process requires additional energy so the more intense your workout, the more calories you’ll burn in a day. (But you don’t need to do high intensity workouts every day, allow the body time to recover).

So, what’s the best way to change your body composition? Do you want to lose weight? Add lean muscle mass? First, determine how many calories you need by figuring out your RMR and basic activity level. I shared a link in another post about this very subject, refer back to it here:
If you want to lose weight, subtract about 400-500 calories, but to start, don’t take in less than 1,500 per day (women). If you hit a plateau in the future, you’ll need something to manipulate, and calories are one of those things. Also, it’s difficult to get all the nutrients you need on a lower calorie diet. If you want to gain body mass, eat a few more hundred calories per day and lift weights. Look at how much protein you need. A good calculation is 1.5 g/kg body weight (one kg=2.2 pounds). Ensure you distribute your protein intake over the course of the day. You also need fat and carbohydrates, but this ratio is better chosen with goals and preferences in mind. Carbohydrates provide energy and can fuel an athlete for optimal performance. Fat can play a tasty roll in a low carbohydrate diet, but that route is not for everyone. Either way, make sure fat comprises at least 20% of the calories in your diet. With a standard 2,000 calorie diet, if minimum fat intake is 20%, then 200 calories, or 22 g of fat would be a guideline and I’d even say that’s a bit low (but I’m an avocado and peanut butter lover, so I need my fats)!

PB and Avocado

A few tips for weight loss: eat small meals frequently, don’t skip meals, (not eating enough calories is not the optimal route to weight loss), after exercise, ensure you have a snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein to replenish glycogen and aid in muscle repair. Avoid refined carbohydrates, fried foods, and alcohol and also watch beverage intake. Drinks can be a source of added calories.

A few tips for weight gain: increase calories, eat small meals over the course of the day, make sure you eat breakfast, add some high calorie foods such as 2% milk, nut butters, high calorie protein supplements, have a pre and post workout snack, and you can even have something mid-workout to fuel you even more. Have a high calorie meal or shake before bed (I prefer casein shakes) and make sure you get quality calories!

Whatever your goals may be, whether it’s adding lean body mass, losing body fat, or training for optimal performance, you can achieve them. Monitor your workouts, calories in and out, and make sure to rest and recover!

What is a well formulated diet?

If you’ve read my blog or ever talked to me in person, you may have heard me say I can be supportive of a variety of diets, but they must be well formulated. I also say to eat a nutrient dense, varied diet. What is a well formulated diet and is it nutrient dense?
The way I see it, a well formulated diet is one that provides a variety of foods to meet nutrient needs while still allowing an individual to meet his or her goals. I didn’t come up with the phrase myself, but I have borrowed it from a book I read, “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance,” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney. If this title sounds familiar to you, that’s because I referenced it in my last blog about low carb diets.
When I was a graduate student, I always subscribed to not only the “calories in versus calories out” lifestyle to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but also to the recommendations we are taught in our nutrition courses. Briefly, these include consuming approximately 50% of calories from carbohydrates, about 20-30% from fat, and the rest from protein. More specifically, protein needs can be calculated at .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which would amount to 50 grams of protein for somebody who weighs 140 pounds. As time has gone on however, my outlook and experience regarding these guidelines have changed. That’s not to say they are wrong or we cannot be healthy if we follow them, but people have specific goals and in order to meet them, these recommendations may not always yield the desired results. And by people, I’m including myself. Having been a figure competitor with a couple years of my life dedicated to body building, you see how the human body can change and transform based on diet, exercise, and good ole hard work!
I no longer follow a “diet.” I eat to meet my goals when that’s a focus in my life (right now, travel is my focus so I’m on a “whatever diet” for the time being). When eating to meet my goals, which is usually body fat loss, I eat within my calorie needs and alter my macronutrient intake from the above mentioned recommendations to maximize muscle maintenance and growth and to promote fat loss. In this way, I kind of do follow the “if it fits your macros” lifestyle, but to an extent because as an RD, I make, and want others to make healthy choices. If you look at any IIFYM hashtags on Instagram, you will see people don’t often eat the most healthy or nutrient dense meals. ?
Anyway, enough about me! What are some common diets we know about? Low carb, high fat like an Atkins style diet, paleo, gluten free, the list goes on, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just look at components of a healthy diet. If you incorporate a variety of foods from these lists over the course of the week, you will be consuming a nutrient dense diet. If your intake is limited based on the specific diet you follow, like a low carb diet, because this is so common, then choose the most healthy options within your guidelines. For example, when choosing what fats to include, choose an avocado or chopped almonds instead of foods that are full of saturated fats like palm and coconut oils. Or if you follow a vegetarian diet, incorporate healthy sources of proteins such as beans and lentils.

These lists are not all inclusive. If there are other healthy options out there, by all means, include those foods, this is just to serve as a rough guideline. I’m not going into detail about what foods we need and why, but suffice it to say it’s important to follow these simple guidelines. Most people don’t want to get into the specifics anyway, but if you do have a question, let me know.

Let’s look at macronutrients first, they make up the meals on our plates.
Whole grains: brown rice, oatmeal, barley, quinoa, corn tortillas, whole grain bread, plain popcorn
Legumes, beans and lentils (also provide protein), are a nutrient dense, fiber filled food
Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, corn, peas, pumpkin
Fruit: fresh fruit and naturally dried fruit (not dried with sugar), fruit cups in natural juices
Chicken breast, turkey cutlets, lean ground chicken and turkey, lean beef, pork tenderloin, white fish, salmon, shellfish, eggs, tofu, tempeh (and beans and legumes as mentioned above)
Avocado, nuts and nut butters, olives, olive and canola oil, flax seeds

Choose the healthier fat when possible.

It may seem some foods are missing. Where are the vegetables, you ask? Non-starchy vegetables should be a component of a well-formulated diet. They are low in calories and carbohydrates, are vitamin and mineral dense, and fiber full. I often give them a section of their own. As you travel the globe, you can see the list of vegetables is seemingly endless, but those with bright green, red, orange, and other vivid colors are the most nutritious. They should be incorporated at every mealtime and can double as a snack as well. Spinach, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower… You get the picture! Eat them. Another food group that gets it’s own special list is dairy. It has a spot on the government’s “My Plate” in the form of a cup of milk, but of course diary includes a variety of products, not just milk. Yogurt, cheese, cream, even ice cream count. I know not everybody likes diary, some are lactose intolerant, but I love it and want people to know it can play a role in a healthy diet. It is a good source of calcium and can add flavor to a variety of different dishes. Yogurt can satisfy a sweet tooth and a casein protein shake before bed time can spare muscle loss during our nighttime fast.

In proper portions, dairy can play a role in a healthful diet.

These are the components that make up a healthy plate, lead to a well formulated diet, and an overall healthy lifestyle, especially when paired with physical activity or regularly scheduled exercise! “Diet,” exercise, and good ole hard work does a body good. You may ask why there isn’t any bacon, butter, or cheesy broccoli soup on my list. Those foods fit into a low carb diet. Yes, you are right, but as a dietitian, I want you to choose the most healthy foods a majority of the time, regardless of the diet you follow. Bacon is ok, sometimes. If you are an athlete that follows a high carbohydrate diet, we (RDs) would rather you choose Greek yogurt with fruit and granola to refuel post exercise as opposed to the pop tarts and Oreos the IIFYM followers so proudly promote.

What “diet” or healthy lifestyle habits do you follow? What yields the best results in your book? If you need help creating a well formulated diet, let me know!


How does a low carb diet work?

Did you know the body’s main source of fuel is carbohydrates? General recommendations are that we consume about 50% of our calories from carbohydrates, but what happens when there’s a shift and why do some people follow low carb diets? If we need carbs but don’t eat them, then what fuel do we use? Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles. If we don’t use them, they are converted into triglycerides, one of the main components of our body fat. When we exercise, the body gets energy from the carbohydrates and fat we get in our food, but if we don’t eat, things are a little different. Untrained athletes can store 80 mmol/kg of glycogen in skeletal muscle. An endurance trained athlete can store 125 mmol/kg, and after following a high carbohydrate diet for a few days, up to 200 mmol/kg can be stored. So, the more physically fit we are, the more carbohydrates we can store, meaning we can participate in activity for a longer duration. Additionally, the liver can store up to 100 g of glycogen as well so getting the recommended amount of carbohydrates on a daily basis ensures your body will have adequate amounts of energy when it needs it.

If you include carbohydrates in your diet, they should be complex for the health benefits.

When we eat food that contains sugar (carbohydrates), it enters into the blood stream and insulin, an anabolic hormone, is released. Insulin helps transport the glucose from our foods into the muscle or liver cells and that’s how we get energy from it to perform our daily activities and exercise. The brain uses about 15-20 grams of glucose within two hours of eating and about 100-145 g over the course of the day. As long as we consume glucose, the body will use it for fuel, and if we eat more than we use, we can save it for later, in the form of fat. This is one reason why carbs get a bad rap- if we eat too many, we gain weight, but in all honestly, if we eat too much of anything, we can gain weight. Additionally, when there are carbs in the system and glucose in the blood, there’s less breakdown of amino acids and fat as a source of fuel. This is why you read recommendations to have some carbs pre and post workout- they help spare lean body mass, your muscles, from being broken down to provide a source of fuel when we exercise (or participate in any other form of activity that requires energy).
So, what about low carb diets then? The goal of a low carb diet is to initially deplete the body’s stores of glycogen, deprive it of carbohydrates, and “train it,” or allow it to adapt to using fat as a source of fuel. In a starvation situation (not recommended), fewer carbohydrates are available and fats will be used. The liver cannot supply glucose so blood sugars drop, insulin levels decrease, fat breakdown INCREASES, and amino acids (the building blocks of protein that make up our muscles) are released from the muscle tissue. This means we can and will use both existing body fat and muscle mass to supply energy to the body, but again, that’s in a state of starvation, when we are not supplying anything to the body. If we keep that up, many changes take place on cellular, hormonal, and physiological levels, and eventually, we die. It takes about 60 days to die of starvation, which is obviously why NOT feeding yourself is not recommended, as mentioned above! Supplying the body with adequate amounts of fat and protein, however, while following a low carbohydrate diet, can minimize amino acid release from the muscles and maximize use of preexisting body fat as a source of fuel which is why many people find it to be a favorable diet for weight (body fat) loss.

Some low carb salmon meatballs I once made. Some of the meals on a low carb diet can be quite tasty!

Without carbohydrates, how does the brain get fuel? Ketone bodies, the production of which takes about 2-3 days, but become the brain’s primary source of fuel by week 3 of a low carb diet. They are a substance made from beta-hydroxybutryic acid and acetoacetic acid and via a long chain of complex events, they can be produced during starvation, when insulin levels are low, or if we eat a low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diet. They are important because they are a substance that can provide fuel for the brain whereas fats cannot. Within 3 days, ketones will provide 30-40 percent of the energy needed but in that adaptation phase, the body will feel sluggish due to the drop in carbohydrates. It takes time, but once your brain and body adapts, you will feel better, no more “hangriness!”

It takes some time to adapt to a low carb diet, so if you make the switch, you may get hangry at first!

There are many changes that take place when following a low carb diet. Glycogen is depleted, hormones shift, and there is an increase in fat breakdown to supply the body and brain with energy. Ketone production spares the body’s stores of protein and is a positive adaption so as to save protein to be used for necessary functions. Many people enjoy following a LCHF diet for its results with overall body weight loss. As long as it is a well formulated diet, there are many benefits of such a diet. Additionally, according to “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance,” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, there are many implications for a LCHF diet in endurance activity, but for peak performance and high intensity activity, carbs are king. As always, choose an eating pattern that meets your needs and ensure it is well formulated and nutrient dense.

How to Lose Weight!

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Most people want to lose weight, and as a registered dietitian and personal trainer, people often ask me how to do just that. In short, diet and exercise are key components to your weight loss endeavors. Sorry, I’m not privy to any magic pills and potions and I don’t buy into fad diets and gimmicks, so let’s go over the ins and out of weight gain and weight loss. If we eat too much food, we gain weight. If we eat less food than we need, we lose weight.
One pound of pure body fat holds about 3,500 calories. There’s a generally accepted theory that in order to lose one pound per week, we should have a deficit of 500 calories a day. 7 days in a week times 500 = 3,500 calories, or again, about one pound of body fat. There are individual differences, however, and metabolic adaptations will vary because every body is different. The amount of energy (calories) one burns also varies, and the ranges can be significant, anywhere from about 75-500 calories a day beyond what’s necessary for weight loss. So, some people naturally burn more calories than others and can therefore lose weight at a faster pace and vice versa.
As weight loss is achieved, the amount of calories we burn changes. Body mass decreases and there are some metabolic adaptations that take place. A lower body mass will naturally burn fewer calories and people with a higher body mass will burn more rapidly. As we lose weight, we need to make changes to our initial calorie goals. Our metabolic hormones partially determine whether the food we eat will be utilized by the muscles, converted to fat, or burned as energy and the hypothalamus and pituitary gland work together in an effort to maintain a constant body weight. They control hunger levels and the body’s metabolic rate, the rate at which we burn calories for energy to perform not only daily activities and physical exercise, but normal life processes such as breathing, digestion, and reproduction.
When it comes to weight loss, a goal should be to maintain lean body mass while losing body fat. When we try to lose weight too quickly by having a high calorie deficit, more weight is lost from our lean body mass which can lead to a decrease in both strength and testosterone. When paired with the right diet, lean body mass can be increased, meaning we can lose body fat while we increase muscle mass. And when looking at things long term, gradual weight loss is better for holding on to that lean mass and we can keep the weight off longer.
What’s a good weight loss goal, you ask? It’s actually small, but that’s good, because small goals are achievable for the short term, and maintainable for the long haul. According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, You should initially aim to lose 0.5-1% of your body weight each week. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, your goal would be to lose 1-2 pounds per week. That may not be “enough” for some people, but if you stick to it, you could lose over 50 pounds in a year, significantly reducing your risk factors for developing chronic, preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
As body fat decreases, we do increase our chances of losing some lean body mass, but again, gradual weight loss and adequate protein intake can help prevent this. Athletes may require additional protein to support both their physical activity and growth of additional lean body mass- muscles! I’ve talked about protein needs in other blogs, but in case you forgot, current recommendations are set at .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for maintenance. There are benefits to higher intakes though, and 1.0-1.2 grams/kg of body weight has shown to yield positive results and for serious strength athletes, some recommend up to 2.2 grams of protein/kg of body weight. This amount is good for training adaptations, and resistance training and cardiovascular exercise increase needs.
Remember, slow and steady weight loss is key. If we restrict our intake too much, our basal metabolic rate will slow and conserve energy for basic life functions. Lean mass will be used as a source of energy for the body and inadequate calories will also slow the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Thyroid metabolism is affected and metabolism further slows. When there’s less T3 and T4, the body breaks down less fat, which is why it may become difficult for some to to lose fat. Rapid weight loss puts us at a higher risk for yo-yo dieting, making the weight harder to lose each time. Like I always say, set short term, achievable goals, aim for a .5-1% reduction in body weight each week, and ensure you get adequate protein throughout the day. Weight loss is possible and beneficial. Give it time and develop healthy, sustainable habits that can last a lifetime.

How Do I Lose Weight?

The One Thing You Must Do to Lose Weight! (Is that a catchy title?!)

Before I begin, let me first say that because I’ve talked and written about these topics extensively, I am writing in my own words. This tips and techniques not only come from my education in nutrition, but personal experiences as an RD, active adult, and former figure competitor. When blogging or writing on topics related to nutrition and fitness, I always want to do research and have references, but if I do that here, I’ll be writing a dissertation on weight loss and nobody will ever read it! If you want reference or a link, however, let me know and I can provide you with loads of resources.

As mentioned in my first “Nutrition” post, everybody is different and has different goals.  Once we determine those goals, I figure out how many calories you need to meet them, whether they be weight loss, maintenance, or growth. If you want to know how many calories you need, enter in your information on this site: I use the little/no exercise option and know that on days where I may do more, I can eat more.

I’m a numbers person and use MyFitnessPal to track my intake (not anymore because I’ve really liberalized my diet since I’ve been in Asia). I recommend you try such an app because it is very eye opening and allows us to see how much we really put into our bodies.  It very common for people to OVER estimate how much they burn via exercise and UNDER estimate how many calories they eat.  Also, studies show that when people keep track of what they eat, they not only lose weight BUT they maintain that weight loss! Give it a try and eat within your needs for a few weeks.  I don’t make promises when it comes to quick fixes and fad diets, but if you do this, you WILL lose weight!

You know what else works really well when looking to lose or even gain weight? Physical activity!  For some, that can mean structured workouts in the gym, and for others, simply getting up, out, and moving around.

So, nothing mind blowing here, just eat within your needs, get in some physical activity, and track your calories.  It’s not much, but it’s a start, and next time, we will look at food and what healthy stuff you should be eating.

Do you use an app to track your food?  How about fitness trackers?  Leave your thoughts and comments and feel free to ask questions in the section below.