Nutritional needs for different body compositions
Anyone even half-serious about improving their physical performance and physique knows this comes down to changing the two basic elements of body composition – fat and muscle.
The perfect ratio of fat-to-lean will depend on your favoured sport (which is why long-distance runner Mo Farah doesn’t look like England Rugby captain Chris Robshaw) or a simple desire to look better in the buff!
If we put some specialised activities to one side (sorry all you desert-runners and Sumo wrestlers out there), most people want to reduce fat and increase muscle. And the route to your low-fat-high-lean destination depends very much on where you’re starting from.
Fortunately, high-tech methods to measure body composition, such as DEXA, measure fat and lean mass separately and therefore accurately establish your starting point and the optimum route in terms of exercise, nutrition and supplementation to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.
Let’s look at your possible starting points:
1. Low fat, low muscle
Commonly referred to as an ectomorph or a hard-gainer, you have the advantage of low fat but may struggle with building muscle mass. Or maybe you’ve simply never tried to build any muscle and you could find you actually make lean mass gains very quickly.
Your goal is to build muscle with little or no increase in fat. So you’ll need a small calorie surplus of roughly 10% above maintenance with a fairly high proportion of carbohydrates to provide the energy around your fairly frequent (4-5 times a week) weight training. Make sure you up the weights when you can (progressive overload), while keeping a close eye on correct form.
As you’re low in fat to start with, adding cardio to your routine is going to be of little benefit.
A macro-split of 35P/45C/20F might be a good starting point. Opt for complex carbohydrates such as oats and consume close to your weights sessions to provide energy and build muscle.
At least a gram of protein per pound (450g) of body weight is a good rule of thumb from foods such as chicken and fish.
2. High fat, low muscle
There’s no easy way to say it but if you’re in this quadrant on the fat-muscle axis you have the hardest task – reduce fat AND gain muscle. It’s quite rare, actually, to be at this starting point because as we gain weight with increased fat our bodies adapt to carry it around. Most people with a lot of fat (commonly known as endomorphs) actually carry vast amounts of muscle because they’re doing a high-weight full-body workout with every step they take.
If you’re high-fat-low-muscle your diet and exercise priorities are as follows.
To lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit, typically between 500-1000 calories. The more fat you have, the higher the deficit can be. We’re all aware of the yo-yo weight problems of ultra-low calorie crash-diets caused by the loss of large amounts of muscle but if you don’t reduce calories enough you’ll take forever to shift the fat and just get demoralised.
To prevent muscle loss (and even increase muscle) you must do bodybuilding-style resistance training with progressive overload. A calorie deficit without weight training is a surefire way to lose muscle (and quite a lot of it if the deficit is big).
Adding some HIIT (high-intensity interval training) to the weight-training will help accelerate the fat loss.
For nutrition, you’ll need to keep protein pretty high to maintain and build muscle but reduce carbohydrates to assist fat loss.
A potential macro split for you is 50P/25C/25F.
3. High fat, high muscle
As with (2), your goal here is to burn fat but with the added pressure of not losing any lean muscle, so weight-training three times a week with some steady-state cardio to round off your sessions would be a good strategy.
Protein intake needs to be high, around 1g-1.2g per pound of body weight to keep muscle loss to a minimum but carbohydrates should be kept low to very low. Diet Whey Protein is a good source of supplementary protein without the carbs, and a pre-workout will help to keep you focused for your entire session.
A good macro split might be 50P/20C/30F.
4. Low fat, high muscle
Lucky you, you’ve arrived! This is many people's dream composition, but how do you mesomorphs stay there? Your calories are obviously on point so keep them where they are. As for the macro split, moderation in everything is the order of the day, so 35P/40C/25F would be a good strategy.
Around 1g of protein per pound (450g) of body weight together with a balanced amount of carbohydrates and weight training three times a week will ensure you maintain your lean muscle mass and keep your fat enviably low. Make sure you eat enough essential fats, such as those found in peanut butter, which is nutrient-dense to help curb cravings and keep you fuller longer – but remember to keep an eye on overall calories.
Remember, for a customised, calorie- and macro-specific food plan and training programme, consider Bodyscan Personal Coaching. Before that, you'll need to establish exactly how much fat and lean mass you carry now, which you can only discover with a Bodycan DEXA scan (see video below).
Watch a 2-minute video of the Bodyscan experience
See how quick and easy it is to get the most accurate measure of your body composition. Your consultation will explain everything in your report and give you realistic targets for achieving a better physique.