Sarcopenia can be defined as the loss of muscle mass as a natural part of aging – as we get older we naturally lose muscle and this is partly responsible for age related frailty. But loss of muscle is linked to more than just physical strength, it has a significant impact on your metabolic rate as well, and not in a good way unfortunately. As muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat (i.e. uses more energy) as we lose muscle our metabolic rate drops as well. So, if you lose muscle you need less calories to stay the same weight, and unless you adjust your diet (or increase exercise) you are more likely to gain weight as fat.
Generally speaking muscle mass peaks in your 30s and 40s and then naturally starts to decline as you age, but loss of muscle isn’t just limited to aging. Another significant cause of muscle loss is very low calorie, or crash dieting. When you starve your body there is a tendency to lose muscle as well as fat!! And, when the diet stops and you start eating normally again, with less muscle there to burn calories you are even more likely to put the weight back on again. And if that wasn’t bad enough, if you do start to put on weight, that weight is likely to be fat not muscle.
In short, if you have a history of crash dieting (sometimes referred to as yo-yo dieting), you may have been gradually shifting your body composition in favour of fat; reducing your metabolic rate and actually making weight loss and maintenance harder in the long run. Not to mention speeding up the aging process as far as sarcopenia is concerned!
Not surprisingly this is quite a common problem and something I often see with clients who have a history of yo-yo dieting. So, if this is something you can identify with (or want to avoid) what can you do about it? Well stop going on crash diets for starters! No more quick fixes. You need to be in this for the long game and these are two of the main points to remember:
Do more exercise
Having a sedentary lifestyle (sitting down a lot) is one of the worst things you can do for your muscles. To a degree its “use it or lose it”. Move around more, take up a sport and even consider some kind of resistance training – if you want to increase muscle you have to make them work harder. You may not enjoy exercising, but a small amount of effort each week has got to be better than the alternatives – increased frailty as you age and increased risk of obesity and the diseases associated with it such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Make sure you are eating enough protein
Protein is vital for building and repairing muscle and a lot of people probably aren’t eating enough of the stuff. Current government guidelines for protein intake suggest that men (aged between 19-50) consume 55.5g of protein a day and women 45g. But if you look more closely at the available research your requirements may actually be higher and will depend on a number of factors including your current weight, your goal (whether that’s weight maintenance, gaining muscle or losing fat), your activity levels and not surprisingly pregnancy.
If you’re really interested in getting into the technicalities check out the following link to examine.com. This site looks at the latest research and summarises the findings enabling you to make an informed decision. Please note however, high protein diets are not suitable for everyone, so if you have a medical condition seek advice from your GP first.
But for most of us who may not have the time or inclination to be worrying about the exact number of grams of protein in every single meal, a great place to start is by ensuring you are including some form of protein in every meal and snack. Not only will it help you achieve the recommended intake, but protein can help you feel fuller for longer, which is great if you are trying to curb your appetite.
The following table, taken from www.nutrition.org.uk provides a list of common protein containing foods to give you some ideas. These figures are in grams and based on a 100g serving.
||Chicken breast (grilled without skin)
Beef steak (lean grilled)
Lamb chop (lean grilled)
Pork chop (lean grilled)
||Tuna (canned in brine)
Whole milk yogurt
Low fat yogurt (plain)
Tofu (soya bean steamed)
||Wheat flour (brown)
Rice (easy cook boiled)
Pasta (fresh cooked)
When it comes to health a great deal of emphasis is put on Body Weight and Body Mass Index (BMI), when in actual fact these only make up a fraction the story. What really counts is body composition, or more specifically how much of your weight is fat, muscle, bone and water. You see, two people of the same height might weigh exactly the same, but their body composition could be vastly different, and these differences can have a significant impact on current and future health, fitness and how you might be feeling in your own skin.
For example, given that muscle weighs more than a fat, a person with a higher percentage of muscle may appear slimmer than someone weighing exactly the same but instead has a higher percentage of body fat. Having more muscle also increases your metabolic rate (how many calories your body requires at rest) which can impact on how much food you are able to consume before you start storing fat!
I use a Tanita Body Composition Analyzer with many of my clients and it has been really insightful. Some individuals who appear to be relatively trim may in fact have low muscle mass but above the recommended amount of body fat, potentially putting them at greater risk of developing health conditions longer term. In contrast other clients who have a BMI which is above the “healthy range” may be healthier because much of their “excess weight” is actually muscle and their body fat is relatively normal.
The great news is, if you aren’t happy with your measurements you can change your body composition. Yes, your genes play a part on overall body shape and your tendencies toward building muscle or storing fat, but there is a lot you can do to shift things in the right direction. For example, changes in diet alongside physical exercise can help to increase muscle mass or maintain it if you are trying to lose weight (a key factor in healthy weight loss which will be covered in more detail in a future post). Cutting back on refined carbohydrates and finding ways of managing stress can help reduce visceral fat, the stuff around our middles associated with increased risk of things like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and if you want to help protect bone mass make sure you are meeting your recommended intake of certain minerals and watch your alcohol and caffeine intake.
I personally think this is exciting stuff and a very good reason for a shift in thinking when it comes to body weight and health; stop focusing on cutting calories and losing weight and concentrate on building and maintaining healthy bone and muscle, whilst gradually reducing body fat.
If you would like to learn more about body composition and how to improve yours, please join my Facebook group The Body Composition Diet.