When it comes to improving fitness, you likely have two goals – lose fat and gain muscle. Losing fat requires a calorie deficit, while gaining muscle requires a calorie surplus. Despite the contradiction, the body can easily handle losing fat and building muscle tissue at the same time. There are two things you should monitor to help you reach your goal - calorie intake and protein intake. The body requires both to build new muscle.
Muscle building occurs through protein synthesis, and this requires energy (calories). The key is to find a balance that ensures you are eating enough calories for protein synthesis, while also limiting your calories to achieve fat loss. Your body finds this balance by using the energy from the metabolism of body fat to build new muscle mass. This means you do not need as many calories to build muscle as you might think.
If you currently eat the calories suggested to reach your weight loss goal, you can start by simply adding strength training to your routine. If the desired fat loss doesn’t occur, slowly decrease your calorie intake by 100 calories per day. If you feel weak and lethargic, then you have reduced intake too much and you will need to slightly increase your calories until you feel strong and energetic again. Give each new calorie adjustment 3-5 days before changing it. This gives you enough time to assess your energy level correctly.
Although our bodies can use energy from burning other tissues (fat), it cannot provide all of the amino acids needed to build muscle. This makes it important to get adequate amounts and varied types of protein in your diet. Note that adequate protein does not mean excessive protein. There is no need to supplement normal dietary protein with expensive protein supplements. You will need somewhere between 0.8 and 1.7 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which is easily attained through normal food intake. Remember to vary your protein sources to ensure that you are getting all of the essential amino acids in your diet. In addition, choose protein sources that are low in saturated fat such as:
- Beans and legumes
- Egg whites
- Low-fat milk and yogurts
- Nuts and seeds
- Poultry and Fish
- Soy-based foods (tempeh, tofu)
The timing of your food intake can also help. Include snacks that provide protein and carbs immediately before and after your workouts. This will help replenish glycogen stores and aid muscle building.