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Why Body Composition Matters More Than Weight

When was the last time you stepped on a scale? What kind of information did it give you? A single weight, you say? If two to three numbers have been your guidepost for what to eat, there is more that you need to know to truly understand your weight. That need to know info comes down to your body composition.

Body Composition is defined as ‘the proportion of fat, muscle, and bone of an individual’s body’. We can take two people with the exact same weight who have very different amounts of fat, muscle, and bone….and whose health status is impacted very differently. Someone in the ‘normal weight’ range as defined by Body Mass Index (‘BMI’) can have a dangerously high amount of fat around their internal organs, while someone who has a higher BMI can have a very high percentage of fat and muscle with a low percentage of body fat.

Check out this comprehensive sample report from the InBody 570, a professional grade body composition analyzer that provides a real-time, actionable breakdown of fat and muscle stores:

Body Composition is important to understand, both for physical and mental/cognitive health. Here are my top five reasons why:

Reason #1: Too much body fat is unquestionably the most important determinant of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when your body stops responding properly to the signal that insulin sends to metabolize glucose (from carbohydrates) into fuel. In addition to being central to prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, insulin resistance contributes to brain neurodegeneration and reduced cognitive abilities (1, 2)

Reason #2: Too much body fat (adipose tissue) increases your risk for depression. Adipose tissue is a foundation of inflammatory factors includes adipokines and cytokines. In a meta-analysis of over 50 studies, the majority of depressed patients have elevations in proinflammatory cytokines. Research has also shown that giving someone inflammatory cytokines in a research setting can increase depression! (3)

Reason #3: Eat the Right Amount of Protein. Understanding how much protein that you need to maintain and increase muscle mass to be at your healthiest is foundational to eating for health promotion. Sufficient protein intake can improve blood sugar, allows us to feel satisfied after meals, improves athletic stamina and performance, and helps to prevent a condition called ‘sarcopenia’ which makes falls, balance issues, and difficulty fighting off infection more likely (4, 5).

Reason #4: Lean Body Mass is central to Healthy Metabolic Function. Lean body mass (fat free mass) is a metabolic powerhouse, burning calories at rest. Were you hoping to lose some weight last time you went on a diet? Were you successful? What were you actually losing? Water weight? Body Fat? Or Muscle Mass?

Extreme caloric restriction often causes loss of Fat Free Mass (think ‘muscle’ mass), which is a significant risk factor for weight regain. When you lose muscle, your metabolic rate goes down…and your body attempts to restore the fat free mass lost by overeating. On the flip side, carefully designed and lifestyle driven weight loss plans can maintain or increase your fat free mass through what you eat and how you move, allowing you to masterfully pursue meaningful changes in weight and body composition(6).

Reason #5: Understanding your lean body mass helps to clarify minimum calorie needs for optimal health, since fat and muscle mass burn different amounts of calories. Your ‘Basal Metabolic Rate’ represents the number of calories that you are burning ‘at rest’-the number of calories needed for basic functions, including breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells (6). On top of your BMR, physical activity and metabolism impact caloric burn, while ‘nonexercise activity thermogenesis’ (which includes non-exercise activity, such as walking from room to room and fidgeting) can burn hundreds of additional calories (7).

So, this is important so that we can count calories religiously, right? Nope! It is so that we are eating enough to ensure that all cylinders are firing. While quality of calories always takes preference to quantity of calories in my book, it IS important that we are eating enough if optimal health, high energy levels, and a stable mood is what we’re after. Failing to eat enough to sustain your body’s functions can lead to changes in mood, cognition, and physical function.

Let’s take a look at the consequences of chronic undereating (8) :

  • Depression
  • Panic
  • Obsessions and Compulsions
  • Irrational Thinking
  • Poor concentration
  • Cravings
  • Decreased Thyroid Function
  • Poor Digestion
  • Dry Skin
  • Poor Sleep

Next time you step on a scale, remember what matters most about that number to your health and well-being.

If you’re ready to take it up a notch and understand your own detailed body composition, book a session here.

About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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