The answer depends on whether you are primarily interested in changing your body weight or your body composition, which are not the same thing.
Conventional wisdom tells us to eat less to lose fat and eat more to gain muscle. How should you eat if you want to do both at the same time?
Don't miss last week's episode where I talk about some of the nuances of the "calories in/calories out" equation: https://nutrition-diva.simplecast.com/episodes/are-some-calories-more-fattening-than-others
Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.
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Nutrition Diva is a part of Quick and Dirty Tips.
Hello, I’m Monica Reinagel and you’re listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast. Welcome!
Joseph recently emailed me with a very common dilemma:
“We’re told that we need to reduce calories if we want to lose fat, and to eat more if we want to gain muscle. What’s the best diet strategy if I am trying to do both at the same time?”
The answer depends on whether you are primarily interested in changing your body weight or your body composition. The two are not the same thing.
Changing your body weight requires changing the balance between how many calories you take in and how many calories you burn.
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to burn more calories than you eat. If you want to gain weight, you’ll have to take in more calories than you burn. And obviously, if you want to stay the same weight, you’re looking for equilibrium between calories in and calories out.
There are several ways to change the balance between calories in and calories out. You can adjust calories in by changing what and how much you eat. You can adjust calories out by changing how much you exercise and move around during the day. You can adjust both at the same time—hopefully in opposite directions!
A lot of people also try to affect the “calories out” part of the equation by trying to manipulate their metabolism through various means, such as drinking green tea or vinegar, eating more protein or fewer carbs, taking cold baths, and so on.
In last week’s episode, I talked more about the nuances of the “calories in/calories out” equation. If you missed that, you might want to check that out as well—I’ll throw a link in the show notes. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to energy balance.
Change the balance between energy in and energy out, and eventually, you’ll change your weight. And no matter what your app tells you about how many calories you need to take in or what your wearable device tells you about how many calories you’re burning each day, the bathroom scale is the ultimate authority on whether you’ve got that balance right.
However, I want to stress that the fluctuations that you’re likely to see if you step on the scale every day don’t reflect actual fat loss or gain. (Or for that matter, muscle loss or gain). MOST of the day-to-day fluctuation is about changes in the amount of water and waste in your body.
This is why I suggest tracking your weight using a 7 or 15-day moving average (there are several smartphone apps that can do this for you.) This will smooth out those day-to-day ups and downs and give you a much more accurate read on whether your weight is trending up, down, or staying the same.
But changing your weight is not the same as changing your body composition.
Body composition refers to how your body weight is distributed between lean muscle, fat tissue, and other stuff that is neither (bone, organs, fluids, etc.)
Losing weight is one way to change your body composition. As you lose body fat, your body fat percentage goes down, which means that your lean muscle percentage will go up—even if you don’t increase your muscle tissue. (That’s how percentages work!)
As a matter of fact, when you lose weight, you often end up losing both fat and muscle. Doing some strength training and keeping your protein up can help stem these lean tissue losses. Losing weight more slowly can also help minimize muscle loss. But as long as you are losing fat faster than you are losing muscle, your body composition will still improve.
We can also improve our body composition without our weight changing very much. To do this, you’d need to work your muscles harder—without changing your calorie intake. As you increase your lean muscle tissue, your body fat percentage will fall. Your body may appear leaner without actually being any lighter.
And of course, if you want to build really big muscles, you’d work your muscles really hard and give your body extra fuel. In this scenario, you’d gain weight—but (hopefully) mostly in the form of lean muscle.
The hardest trick of all, however, is to increase muscle tissue while simultaneously losing body weight. Which brings us to Joseph’s question: What’s the best strategy if you want to lose weight AND gain muscle?
As I mentioned earlier, when we lose weight, we almost always lose some muscle tissue along with the fat. So if you have a significant amount of weight to lose, I think your best strategy is to focus first on reducing your body weight—while minimizing muscle loss. To do this, you’d want to lose the weight slowly, do some strength training, and keep your protein intake up.
If (or when) you’re within 5 or so pounds of your goal weight, you might want to focus more on improving your body composition. To do this, you’d challenge your muscles while adjusting your food intake to keep your weight more or less steady. Again, incorporating high-quality protein into every meal can help build lean muscle tissue and may also help with weight maintenance.
(And if you’re looking for more support and guidance in losing weight in a way that’s healthy and sustainable, please check out the tools and resources that I’ve put together at Weighless.life.)
Thanks to Joseph for submitting this question. Email me your question at email@example.com or call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. and your question could be featured in a future episode!
Nutrition Diva is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. It's audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our Podcast and Advertising Operations Specialist is Morgan Christianson. Our Digital Operations Specialist is Holly Hutchings. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our intern is Brendan Picha
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