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Nutritional Approach to Body Composition Changes in the Athlete with elevated body fat percentage

There is no question that each sport has a general trend when it comes to ideal body fat percentage.  The outliers on the top end of this measurement are interesting to me. This is even more of a conundrum at the professional or elite levels.  If you are outside of this norm on the top end, you are generally asked constantly to move closer to the norm. If you are on the other end of the game where you are under the norm, generally people leave you alone.  This in itself is an issue but performance and health metrics generally govern this end of the spectrum.

How do the big cats get their body fat in check, and what is an acceptable norm?  

Get your body fat in check

This is no easy task — it takes discipline and hard work to find a routine that works and is sustainable. From a nutritional standpoint we know that to burn fat we need to create an environment where there is a depletion of local energy stores.  Once these reserves are gone then the body will need to convert it from other places. Let’s expand a bit.

Carbohydrates vs. Fats

The initial source of energy reserves we will refer to is carbohydrates.  The deeper more long term energy stores are fats.  

If you are an athlete you want to be really good at using both ends of this spectrum.  It is very helpful to be able to convert fats to energy just like converting carbohydrates to energy.  The delicate dance you play with body composition changes what source of energy is preferred and how much.

In general, most athletic performance under 1 hour in competitive duration (time spent competing) is fueled best by carbohydrates.  If body composition is of major concern, the timing, amount, and source of these carbohydrates can have a dramatic impact on an athlete’s body.  

As complicated as health and performance can be, diet and exercise need to match one’s goals.  I often wonder how someone who gets a meal plan for weight loss and a workout plan for muscle gain gets anything accomplished in achieving their goals in a way that will sustain for years to come.  

There is a way to make the match.

Metabolic Flexibility

A term I learned from Mike T Nelson PhD “Metabolic Flexibility” seems to sum it up the best.  We want our bodies to be able to pull energy from both ends of the macronutrient spectrum. Fat burning and carbohydrate burning.  The healthiest cells in your body can do this. They have been pre-programed to operate on both gas (carbohydrates) and electricity (fats) depending on the type of exercise you are doing or what you are eating1.  Simple but complex concept! 

How do you do it?

Some may have heard of the term carb cycling or other terms for undulating calorie intake.  This is along the vein of what we are talking about here. On days where you are lifting weights, sprinting of any kind; participating in team sport activities or an aerobic skill work … EAT CARBS.  

Yep that’s right. It’s that simple.

Ideally you’d eat some clean, healthy version of carbohydrates that you like a few hours before you train and within a few hours after.  Simple easily digested carbohydrates is the best — if you’re not sure what to look for, look for things a little higher on the Glycemic Index scale that fit your food criteria. Here are my favorite examples:

  • Rice cakes
  • Rice
  • Whole grain bread
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato
  • Local raw honey

This is a point where carbohydrate intake will serve you well.  It will fuel your muscles during the training session and fuel the recovery efforts on the back end.  For those looking to drop some body fat points, that’s where it should probably end.  

The last meal of the day should consist of mostly non starchy vegetables with olive oil based dressing and some healthy protein.  Go nuts if you have to but stay in this zone.  

To make an efficient and health change on your system you will have to do some good ole fashioned cardio work. 


Cardio is defined as running, cycling, cross country skiing, versa climbing — and my personal favorite — rowing2.  These exercises allow you to realize maximal oxygen uptake, which is good for fat metabolism.  

You will want to find time in your week to program 2-3 days dedicated to some version of these exercises to improve both your cardiovascular system, but spend time improving your performance while burning a target energy source … fat.

Once you have defined when this type of training fits into your diet, look at your meal planning for that day and adjust accordingly.  

Fasted cardio is a good option.  Skip breakfast and train some aerobic intervals for the day’s adventure.  Have a lower carb but complete recovery meal with some protein and fat-based snacks during the day.  

Keep up the meat and veggie dinners. Portion control during the day is tough, you will need positive support so hire a coach or surround yourself with people that have your best interest in mind.  

  1. Smith, Reuben L et al. “Metabolic Flexibility as an Adaptation to Energy Resources and Requirements in Health and Disease.” Endocrine reviews vol. 39,4 (2018): 489-517. doi:10.1210/er.2017-00211
  2. Jay, Kenneth “The Cardio Code” Slangerup, Velocity, 2014
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