For the athlete, optimizing your body composition as a means to increasing your strength-to-weight ratio is one strategy to enhance athletic performance.

There are essentially two ways to improve body composition – increasing muscle mass or reducing body fat. In either scenario, nutrition matters and science agrees (1, 2, 3, 4).

In fact, nutrition may just be the co-captain – if not, chief – commander of body composition, alongside exercise.

In the realm of weight loss, keeping muscle and losing fat is known as quality weight loss – and quality weight loss requires quality nutrition (1).

Unfortunately, with the current ‘keto’ craze plaguing society more attention is being paid to quantity over quality. More specifically, quantity of fat compared to carbohydrates and protein.

Yet research is suggesting that the type of fat in our diet has an impact on our body composition (5, 6).

By shifting our attention to high quality dietary fats, we may be able to kill two birds with one stone avocado and lose fat while promoting muscle.

Types of Fat

All fats belong to one of three families: trans fats, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats. These fats simply differ in their chemical structures which in turn affects how they’re handled by the body.

Trans fats are the troublemakers, the definite no-no’s that don’t even warrant dietary consideration; some countries have even banned their use in foods (7).

Saturated fats, although vilified in the past as the root of chronic disease,  may have a more neutral effect on health than previously thought (7).

Because of this, instead of avoiding saturated fats, people are encouraged to choose more healthful, less processed sources of saturated fat (7). For example: milk, cheese, coconut oil, and chicken breast.

Then again, health benefits can be gained by substituting these at-best-neutral fats for the highest quality fats – the unsaturated fats (7, 8).

High Quality Fats

There are two subgroups of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats which include the infamous omega-3’s.

Beyond the positive impact on our overall health, unsaturated fats are the clear winner in supporting body composition improvements.

Not only do they require more energy to digest, but they’re also less easily stored as body fat compared to saturated fats (6, 9).

On top of that, numerous studies have found that polyunsaturated fats exhibit anabolic potential and may support muscle mass by decreasing muscle protein breakdown, especially during weight loss (1, 9, 10, 11).

Top sources of monounsaturated fats: olive oil, canola oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios), avocados, seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds).

Top sources of polyunsaturated fats: ground flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, fatty fish (mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines, salmon, trout), edamame/soybeans.

Reshaping Your Food Choices

To reach your body composition goals think quality over quantity, and substitution not addition.

The first step that you can make is to start by substituting the saturated fat in your diet with unsaturated fats.

For example, cooking with vegetable oils over coconut oil, and choosing edamame instead of potato chips (try this All Dressed Edamame recipe!).

Achieving weight loss doesn’t always lead to body composition improvements – this is where a dietitian comes in.

As an athlete, working with a sports dietitian can help you convert those losses into gains and ensure that your efforts translate into better performance.

Thanks for reading!
Kirsten Allen, BSc Kin, RD

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