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What is Body Composition and How Can You Improve Yours?

2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks were the first to study body composition and believed that the body was made up of the same elements as the universe -- fire, air, water, and earth -- and that the balance and utilization of these elements determined health and sickness. 

Modern research on body composition began over one hundred years ago and water displacement techniques, which were first developed back in the 1940s, were the first-way researchers were able to evaluate fat mass and fat-free mass.

Fast forward to contemporary times, and scientists have identified body composition as an important parameter in determining the overall health, disease risk, and longevity for the individual of all ages.  

But what exactly is body composition and what factors affect it? Furthermore, how do you go about making improvements if your body composition is putting you at risk? 

In order to answer these questions, and more, we’re tackling everything you need to know, from how your body’s distribution of fat and fat-free mass affects your health, to what you can do to get leaner and healthier.  

What is Body Composition?

You are, after all, the sum of all your parts.

And this summation of pieces ultimately determines the composition of your body. 

At the atomic, molecular, and cellular level, those parts ultimately make up your body’s components at the tissue-organ level. Your organs consist of things like your liver, spleen, intestines, brain, heart, and more. The tissue components are your muscles, tendons, bone, fat, and skin.(1)(2)

Together, all of these different components make up your body mass. If we want to simplify things further, this mass is basically made up of oil and water, and as we all know, oil and water do not mix. The oil component is fat. All the other mass in your body is made up of water and accounts for over 70% of your total body mass.  

Fat is an ester molecule linked to three fatty acid molecules. Fat is found within fat cells (called adipose tissue) and outside of adipose within organs, muscles, fluids, and cells.(3)

Adipose tissue, its location, and its quantity are highly correlated with the individual's health. For example, excess fat located within the abdomen and around the liver, intestines, pancreas, and spleen is associated with insulin insensitivity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. 

When the body mass and energy needs of the individual are stable, the tissue-organ mass of the body remains stable. This is the premise of all body composition research and what it basically means is that if you are physically doing the same thing every day, and you are nutritionally satisfying these energy levels, your body composition will remain the same.(4)

How Does Nutrition Tie into the Picture?

The nutrients you consume and your daily physical/mental activities, ultimately determine your health, vitality, and body appearance. Your body is constantly using and metabolizing amino acids, sugars, and fats. They are needed to sustain vital tissues, repair cells, build new cells and provide energy.  

There is a constant balance at work between the nutrients we consume -- taken in the form of protein, carbohydrates, and fats -- and their absorption, utilization, and storage in the body. 

When deficiencies occur, cellular components are ultimately harvested to meet the immediate needs of critical systems. When the balance tips in the other direction, excess nutrients end up getting stored for later use. 

The body’s main storage vault is the fat cell. After your body is done metabolizing all of the nutrients it needs, any excess will be used to produce fatty acids, which are then stored in the fat cell. 

What’s The Difference Between Body Composition and BMI?

When considering how much fat an individual carries, physicians and nutritionists typically look at either BMI (body mass index) or body composition. BMI is much simpler to calculate, though it has some disadvantages.

Your BMI or body mass index is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. This can be used as a general assessment calculation of whether an individual has excess body fat or not.  However, in patients who have larger volumes of lean muscle mass, this may not be an adequate calculation. The BMI may indicate that they are obese even though they are not.

Similarly, an individual with lesser quantities of muscle mass could have a  normal BMI even though the individual has excess fat.  The skinny-fat individual would fall into this category. 

A normal BMI would fall in the range of 18.5 to 24.9. 25 and higher is considered overweight and greater than 30 is categorized as being obese. 

What's a Good Distribution of Fat and Non-Fat?

Body composition on the other hand gives you a better assessment of how much body fat the individual is carrying. What is considered normal is different for men and women and will also vary based on age, genetics, and hormonal status. 

A certain amount of body fat is essential for health. Having too low a volume of body fat can lead to negative heart risks, lower energy levels, suppressed testosterone levels, bone loss, increased injuries, amenorrhea, emotional issues, and decreased sperm count.(5)

Having excess body fat will also increase the risk of a variety of health conditions from cardiac to diabetes to cancer. 

The average man considered fit would fall in the 14-17% range while a woman would be in the 21-24% range. If we were to consider what would be the acceptable limits of body fat for the average individual, it would be as high as 24% for men and 31% for women.  

However, from my perspective as a surgeon, any woman over 30% body fat poses an increased surgical risk for complications. In men, this would be over 23%.

On the flip side, the essential minimum percentage of body fat necessary to sustain life is 2-5% for men and 10-13% for women.  Why are women higher?  A higher fat amount is necessary for a woman’s normal hormonal and reproductive function.

Athletes typically fall in the 6-13% range for males and 14-20% for females. This range varies based on the sport and the position played with more aerobic-based athletes having quantities at the lower range and power-based athletes towards the higher end of the spectrum -- in working with many pro trainers in the hockey world, they typically like their men to be no higher than 10%. 

What Factors Affect Your Body Composition?

What you eat and how much you exercise are not the sole determinants of your body composition. There are a host of other associated factors, many of which the individual has minimal control over. 

Genetics can and do play a role in an individual’s body composition. Equally as important, is the expression of your genes, meaning how your genes work in response to nutrition. This is called epigenetics and it plays an enormous role in body composition and health. For example, many components in the Mediterranean Diet have a profound influence on body fat, cognition, brain function, and dementia.(6)

Further, higher body fat composition in children has been found to skew the epigenetic expression causing altered lipid and glucose metabolism, diabetes, and further increased body size and composition in children.(7)

Aging plays a dual role in body composition: muscle mass decreases with age and body fat may change as well. Typically in men, body fat does not decrease but in women, it does as they age from 60-85.(8)

On top of all that, sex hormones, corticosteroids, insulin, growth hormone, and leptin all play a role in body fat deposition and fat breakdown. Significant decreases in caloric intake can have dramatic positive effects on all of these hormones, the individual’s health and can result in decreases in body fat.(9)

How is Body Composition Measured?

A variety of different techniques are used to measure body composition including anthropometry, bioelectrical impedance analysis, densitometry, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, air displacement plethysmography, and tracer dilution, just to name a few.(10) Though precision and accuracy do vary from method to method, the key is consistency in technique by the measurer. 

Anthropometry can be done anywhere and only needs a skilled practitioner for its use. It is performed with calipers, a tape measure, and detailed charts. The results do vary from practitioner to practitioner as caliper assessment varies. However, with this approach, trends can be clearly observed and tracked, making it a relatively simple and useful technique. 

Biometrical impedance can also be performed fairly easily and with good accuracy. It is dependent upon your fat-free water content, so you’ll need to be properly hydrated at the time of testing to see consistent results.  

There are some drawbacks to biometrical impedance, including potential errors due to differences in limb length, physical activity, nutrition status, hydration level, blood chemistry, ovulation, and placement of electrodes.(11)

Other techniques require specialized equipment and testing and are outside the scope of this article. 

How to Improve Your Body Composition

Body composition plays a critical role in the individual’s health across all age groups.  Recent research has shown that it is especially important for children. In fact, poor body composition during childhood is a precursor to a variety of lifelong health issues. 

The two major body composition components that the individual can change are their fat mass and their muscle mass. Fat mass can be decreased and muscle mass can be increased. Though losing fat and gaining muscle usually require different nutritional and exercise requirements, the combination of the two achieved together is considered the holy grail of health and fitness. 

Losing Fat

Reducing body fat mass requires that the individual creates an extended period of caloric deficit.  A caloric deficit means the individual is using more calories for energy than they are consuming. This can be achieved by increasing their energy expenditure via exercise, reducing the number of calories they eat, or, ideally, both. 

For the average individual to lose one pound of body fat requires a 3000 calorie deficit. As an example, an average 5’4” 145 pound, forty-year-old woman who moderately exercises twice a week requires around 1800 calories a day to stay at the same weight -- i.e. she is in a caloric neutral state at 1800 calories.  

In order to lose at least a pound in a week, she would need to cut her normal calorie intake per week from 12,600 down to 9,600 calories. This equals a daily intake of 1370 calories. 

You can also increase your calorie-burning potential by increasing the amount of time that you exercise, as well as, by further reducing the number of calories you consumed. 

Though numerous attempts are made to improve body composition by increasing exercise loads, often the correct exercises are not performed and the individual tends to rely on “exercise” as the end-all, be-all, for reducing their body fat. 

Numerous studies have shown that exercise alone has minimal effect on the individual's body fat composition.  The reason for this is that the frequency, duration, and intensity of the exercise are not significant enough to induce change real, measurable changes.  

For most people, a single workout session only adds around 300-400 calories of extra energy expenditure, which even when added up over the course of a week, is usually not sufficient on its own to cause a significant decrease in fat mass. 

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Gaining Muscle

To gain muscle mass requires 3 components: resistance training of adequate volume and intensity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, a hormonal anabolic state, and adequate amino acid nutritional supply.  All 3 are necessary for muscle mass to increase. The hard part is gauging adequate balance.

If the individual consumes too many nutrients, then body fat increases. If inadequate resistance training is used, then muscle growth will not occur. When the proper anabolic hormonal state isn’t present, proper nutrition and training will not have a growth effect. This is often seen with aging.

Studies in older males have shown that testosterone supplementation, as well as growth hormone optimization, will increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat.(12)

Supplementation with supraphysiologic doses of natural nutraceuticals like phosphatidic acid, HMB, HICA, beta-alanine, and phosphocreatine will stimulate muscle protein synthesis, muscle growth, and repair at levels far greater than standard nutritional approaches alone.(13)

This unique combination of clinically dosed nutraceuticals is found in our MPO product. We have found it useful for gaining muscle mass and strength. Our own study in professional hockey players shows that it increases power and performance during intense training.  In addition, we have seen it to be very useful in athletes and non-athletes recovering from injury and surgery in preventing muscle loss. 

The Holy Grail

Losing body fat while gaining muscle is a difficult combination to do simultaneously and why we call it the holy grail of health and fitness. It often requires separate fat-burning aerobic exercise sessions from resistance training sessions. 

This is because aerobic exercise produces a catabolic hormonal response and resistance exercise exerts an anabolic response.  When the two are combined in the same session, the anabolic effect is blunted. 

 It also requires a strict calculation of your caloric and protein requirements. The amount of protein needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and an anabolic state is usually double the standard requirement. Adding MPO to the regime can help to make the process far more successful. 

Wrap Up

Body composition is a useful tool for evaluating, monitoring, and guiding an individual as they strive to better health, fitness, and longevity. 

Several simple tools are available for body composition assessment. More accurate and even more esoteric measurements are available using modern technology. 

With body composition assessment, a plan for nutritional interventions and exercise changes can be made to best change body fat and muscle mass. The effectiveness of these interventions can then be monitored on a consistent basis.

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